What to Know About Ukraine’s Parliamentary Elections

People exit the Central Election Commission in Kyiv. Photo: Getty Images.
People exit the Central Election Commission in Kyiv. Photo: Getty Images.

1. President Volodymyr Zelenskyi’s party scored the first ever parliamentary majority in the history of independent Ukraine.

The main surprise of the snap parliamentary elections was that the president’s party, Servant of the People, won a majority. With 254 MPs out of 450, Zelenskyi can form a new government without a coalition partner. For the first time in the history of independent Ukraine, one political party will have full control over the cabinet of ministers, the office of the president and parliament.

This became possible because Ukrainians were tired of hearing unfulfilled reform promises and were disappointed with the old elite. Drive proved to be more important than experience in running state affairs, which Zelenskyi’s campaign equated with corruption and cynicism.

Zelenskyi proposed an inclusive agenda, focusing on issues of injustice and corruption that are important for all Ukrainians and distancing himself from contentious agendas. His party won in all but three regions.

2. A new, more diverse generation is heading to parliament.

Thanks to two new political parties, the president’s party and Voice, the party of rock star Slava Vakarchuk, 80 per cent of MPs are newcomers.

The average age of parliamentarians is now seven years younger than in the previous parliament. The average age of an MP is 41; the youngest MP is 23 years old. The intake is 20 per cent female, almost twice the percentage in 2014, and for the first time there will be a black MP.

The parliament has many unknown faces; running under the most popular political brand of Zelenskyi was enough to score victory. As a result, the president’s party is an eclectic group that includes among others a wedding photographer, an owner of a pizza restaurant and many MPs that are registered as unemployed. Servant of the People both inspired young people to vote and included many young people in their list.

3. Ukraine will remain Europe-facing but Russia’s supporters have gained weight.

Zelenskyi and his party will maintain a pro-EU position; 54 per cent of the public expect the new president to continue to advance integration with the EU. Zelenskyi’s nominee for foreign minister, Vadym Prystaiko, is a committed supporter of both EU and NATO integration. Zelensky’s first official foreign visit was to Brussels, where both sides reconfirmed their commitment to implementing the EU–Ukraine Association Agreement and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement.

However, around 20 per cent of Ukrainians voted for various pro-Russian parties, although only one managed to enter the parliament. Opposition Platform for Life, the party lead by Putin ally Viktor Medvedchuk, received 13 per cent support. Among the five parties in the new parliament, it will be the only openly pro-Russian group. In contrast, the Ukrainian nationalist parties received only two per cent support and are not in the parliament.

Given the probability that Medvedchuk will be elected the vice-speaker on the opposition quota, the Kremlin narrative could be broadcast from the legislative chamber. A shrewd and experienced politician, he will be skilled in imposing his agenda on a majority that is largely inexperienced in the parliamentary affairs. He will push for the autonomy of Donbas and promote compromise with Russia on terms that fit the Kremlin.

4. The new leadership will pursue a liberal, market-oriented reform agenda.

In Ukraine, the parliament has substantial powers and plays a key role in the reform process. With his landslide victory, Zelenskyi has a unique opportunity to demonstrate strong ownership of reforms. Previous administrations could point fingers at an unruly parliament that rejected 70 per cent of proposed reform bills. Zelenskyi will have no such excuses.

So far, his first steps and the rhetoric of both the president and his close circle of advisers seems to indicate that they will drive reform towards more competitive economy. Zelenskyi has already made moves toward a better regulatory environment in digital services for business and citizens.

Oleksiy Honcharuk, the head of the president’s economic team and a candidate for prime minister, stated that they are preparing for a large-scale privatization of state-owned enterprises, easing access to extractive industries for foreign investors and even lifting the moratorium on the sale of agricultural land by the end of 2019. The leadership is hoping to negotiate a new IMF programme by October.

The Cabinet is likely to be technocratic. The size of government will be downsized by consolidating some ministries and introducing more digital services. Some reformers from the previous administration, such as Minister of Finance Oksana Markarova, are likely to remain in office.

So far, markets have reacted positively to such statements and the value of GDP-linked securities have risen.

5. Risks to Zelenskyi’s reform plans remain high.

There are serious risks for Zelenskyi’s ambitious plans for radical change. Although the lobbying power of business tycoons in the new parliament will have decreased, there are more than 20 MPs inside the president’s majority that are directly or indirectly linked to Ihor Kolomoisky, whose relationship to Zelenskyi raised eyebrows during the presidential campaign. In order to maintain a single party majority, Zelenskyi might need to strike bargains with Kolomoisky to secure some necessary votes. This could be damaging for reform.

Parts of the system will also mount resistance. In the midst of widespread official corruption, just passing laws will not be enough. The capacity of central and local administrations to deliver good governance is suboptimal and the ability to implement complex transformation is low.

There is also the possibility of discord over domestic policy. Sensitive issues include the role of the Ukrainian language, state support to cultural industries and protection from Russian disinformation. If Zelenskyi’s top team try to reverse the previous president’s policy on language, lift restrictions on Russian TV channels or loosen restrictions Russian artists who supported the annexation of Crimea, this could spark strong reactions from the parliamentary opposition and civil society.

Externally, the Russian threat to Ukraine remains real and fighting in Donbas continues. Vladimir Putin is not changing his objectives; he could easily escalate the military standoff, inflicting serious economic and political costs. This would divert resources and attention away from jump-starting the Ukrainian economy and could overwhelm the rest of Zelenskyi’s programme.

Orysia Lutsevych, Research Fellow and Manager, Ukraine Forum, Russia and Eurasia Programme and Alyona Getmanchuk, Director, New Europe Center.

Chatham House and New Europe Center are working in partnership on the Ukraine’s Elections in Focus project.

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