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Ukrainian Elections: Reshuffling the Political Spectrum

On Sunday, July 21, Ukraine will be heading to the polls in a snap parliamentary election, called by the newly elected President Volodymyr Zelenskyi (SN-*). Originally, the election was scheduled for October, but right after his inauguration, Zelenskyi issued a decree on dissolution of the current session of the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian Parliament), citing the lack of a governing coalition and the extremely low confidence of the Ukrainian public in this institution — just around 4% according to Rating surveys.

Before this year’s presidential election, popular comedian Zelenskyi became an unexpected frontrunner and won the race in a second-round landslide against the then President Petro Poroshenko (YeS-EPP). Zelenskyi’s decision to dissolve Parliament caused severe conflict between him, his party and the current national leadership. It has become a central element of the pre-election discussion, along with Russian military aggression and potential return of the pro-Kremlin forces to power. For instance, Ukrainian members of Parliament refused to consider numerous bills introduced by the new President and rejected Zelenskyi’s request to dismiss the widely criticized Attorney General Yurii Lutsenko and Poroshenko’s protégé, Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin (*). Tensions with Klimkin went even further when Zelenskyi publicly stated that the Foreign Minister has not coordinated with him on the Ukrainian response to the Russian note regarding Ukrainian sailors, who were captured by Russia in the Kerch Strait in November 2018.

Apart from confrontation with government and the parliamentary majority, remarkable events of the first months of Zelenskyi’s presidency were the mutual withdrawal of troops in one sector of the military conflict zone in Donbas, as well as the announced optimisation of the Presidential Administration, renaming it to Presidential Office and decreasing the number of public servants. It is worth mentioning that several of Zelenskyi’s decisions were very controversial. For example, the appointment of lawyer Andrii Bohdan — who held high positions during the rule of the deposed pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych (PR-S&D) — as Head of the Presidential Administration caused suspicions of violating the Lustration Act. Zelenskyi’s move to appoint new governors also earned public criticism due to several of the candidates.

Zelenskyi’s rise to the highest office in the country marked an overall reshuffle of the Ukrainian political landscape, with the rise of new parties incorporating an energetic reform agenda and fairly populistic rhetoric, such as Zelenskyi’s anti-establishment Servant of the People (SN-*) and liberal Voice (Holos∼EPP). Meanwhile, most parties which were elected to the Parliament back in 2014, are now suffering a painful backlash. For example, centre-right People’s Front (NF-EPP), which secured a plurality with more than 22% of the vote in 2014, has lost almost all its electoral support and decided not to compete in the upcoming election. Centre-right Self-Reliance (Samopomich-EPP), which finished 3rd in the previous election with 11% of the vote, is experiencing a similar decline. At the moment, it is polling only around 1% among decided voters, despite the fact that authoritative Civil Movement ‘Honestly’ ranked incumbent Self-Reliance’s MPs among the most virtuous deputies.

According to the latest polls, five parties can make it to the Parliament in the nationwide constituency:

Servant of the People (*)

In the popular Ukrainian political comedy TV series ‘Servant of the People’, actor Volodymyr Zelenskyi played a school teacher, who unexpectedly ended up being elected President of Ukraine, fighting corruption. In 2018, a political party of the same name (SN-*) was registered and managed to transform this plot into reality, with Zelenskyi himself winning the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential election in a landslide victory.

Servant of the People campaigns on a pro-EU and pro-NATO platform, intending to increase the growth of the Ukrainian economy through radical reforms of the state, including reforms of judiciary, police, and electoral law, in order to increase confidence in the Ukrainian state. Public services are to be made available online, including possibilities of participation by direct democracy. In line with the television series it originates from, numerous anti-corruption measures are part of the election program. Furthermore, much emphasis is put on efforts to decentralise power both in the public (principle of subsidiarity) and the private (end of the monopoly of key industries) sectors. Some investigative journalists, however, argue that Zelenskyi himself has ties to Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskyi. Another important promise is to end the ongoing war with Russia by means of diplomacy, without giving up any territorial claims.

Servant of the People is the undisputed frontrunner in this parliamentary race and is expected to take around 44% of the nationwide constituency vote.

Opposition Platform ‘For Life’ (∼S&D)

The escape of the former President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych to Russia during the Euromaidan Revolution in 2014 was a sign of collapse for the major Ukrainian pro-Kremlin force — Party of Regions (PR-S&D), who had a cooperation agreement with the S&D Group in the European Parliament. Centre-left Opposition Platform ‘For Life’ (OPZZh∼S&D) is considered as the largest fragment of the former Party of Regions, as many prominent former PR politicians (like former Vice Prime Minister Yurii Boiko and Head of Yanukovych’s Presidential Administration Serhii Lovochkin) are now running under the OPZZh banner. In its current formation, the party was established in December 2018.

Political commentators argue that Opposition Platform is a personal project of Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, who holds the 3rd position on the OP list. He owns two major Ukrainian news channels and recently bought another, which was the reason for accusations of him monopolising Ukrainian media market. As a side note, Russian President Vladimir Putin (YeR-*) is godfather to Medvedchuk’s youngest daughter. Opposition Platform is an openly pro-Kremlin, anti-EU and anti-NATO party. It aims to cancel numerous laws, passed by the current convocation of Parliament, such as Lustration, Education and Language acts. OPZZh also promises to protect ethnic minorities and to stop the economic blockade of the occupied territories. Opposition Platform’s economic program includes the implementation of a Capital Withdrawal Tax, the abolition of the Corporate Income Tax, and an increase in childbirth payments. Although the party polls second with around 13% support, it significantly falls behind the pro-presidential SN list.

European Solidarity (EPP)

Previously known as Petro Poroshenko Bloc ‘Solidarity’, newly rebranded European Solidarity (YeS-EPP) is the party of former President Petro Poroshenko. Despite the defeat to Zelenskyi in this year’s presidential election, Poroshenko remained in politics and is now leading his party in their run for Parliament. YeS has existed in various forms since 2000 and is affiliated with the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP). European Solidarity is a pro-EU and pro-NATO party, which wants to continue Poroshenko’s political course. For instance, YeS wants the completion of decentralisation and medical reforms. The party also proposes to use the UN Peacekeeping Forces to regain control over the Donbas region, which is currently occupied by Russia.

Unlike other Ukrainian parties, YeS explicitly mentions firm support for gender equality in its program. Remarkably, several high-ranking members of the Mejlis (the executive-representative body of the Crimean Tatar people), such as the former long-term Chairman Mustafa Cemilev and incumbent Vice-Chairman Ahtem Çiygoz, are part of the YeS list. Poroshenko’s party gained almost 22% of the vote back in 2014, securing second place in the nationwide constituency. These days European Solidarity’s popularity is at approx. 8%, according to the polls.

All-Ukrainian Union ‘Fatherland’ (EPP)

The All-Ukrainian Union ‘Fatherland’ (Batkiv.-EPP) was founded in 1999 and is the oldest political force in the Verkhovna Rada, which is likely to return to Parliament after the next election. The party is led by Yuliia Tymoshenko, Ukraine’s first and only female Prime Minister and 3rd in the presidential race earlier this year. In 2011, Tymoshenko was imprisoned for embezzlement (‘gas case’), but during the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution she was released and the accusations declared void in the aftermath. Fatherland is a centre-right, pro-EU and pro-NATO party, rejecting both socialism and free-market fundamentalism, instead pursuing a third way they call ‘solidarism’. It is supportive of the Minsk process and the Normandy format of negotiations and proposes a ‘Budapest+’ format (referring to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances) involving Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom. Another top priority is to free prisoners and hostages in the context of the Donbas and Crimea conflicts. Since 2008, Fatherland has had observer status in the European People’s Party (EPP). 

Domestically, it backs compulsory health insurance, renewable energy and lower mortgage rates. Tymoshenko’s party came in 6th, securing around 6% in the nationwide constituency during the 2014 parliamentary election, which marks its worst electoral performance. The main cause has been a split-off called ‘People’s Front’, which won the election with 22% of the nationwide constituency vote. Recent opinion polls suggest Fatherland is currently the preferred choice of approx. 7% of the electorate.

Voice (∼EPP)

Voice (Holos∼EPP) is a party launched two months ago by the popular Ukrainian singer Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, who was widely considered as a possible anti-establishment candidate for this year’s presidential election, along with Zelenskyi. Nevertheless, Vakarchuk refused to run for President, but instead established a party to participate in the race for Parliament. In 2007, Vakarchuk had already been elected to Parliament within the pro-EU NUNS Bloc (EPP), but only after a year in office he stepped down, citing the lack of political support from his colleagues. Voice is a liberal party with strong anti-establishment rhetoric, which advocates for Ukraine’s accession to the EU and NATO, and a smaller and generally more effective state. The party also promises to fight the influence of the oligarchs on the Ukrainian economy, media and state. Among Voice’s candidates there are many prominent anti-corruption activists without any political background, such as the ex-head of Transparency International Ukraine — Yaroslav Yurchyshyn. Voice is taking part in an election for the first time and is currently polling at around 7%.

Besides these five political forces, there are 17 more lists, registered for the election. However, they are unlikely to clear the 5% national threshold, which is a requirement in order to be considered for the proportional seat allocation. Here are the most relevant of them:

Strength and Honour (SiCh∼EPP|RE) — centre-right, pro-EU, gathers former Self-Reliance (EPP) members and Vice-Chair of the ALDE group in PACE Olena Sotnyk. 

Civil Position (HP-RE) — liberal, pro-EU, full member of the ALDE party, led by former Defence Minister Anatolii Hrytsenko.

Opposition Bloc (Opoblok∼S&D) — centre-left, anti-EU, pro-Kremlin, successor of the Party of Regions (along with OP), sits with SOC group in PACE.

Ukrainian Strategy (US∼EPP) — centre-right, pro-EU, party of incumbent Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroisman, gathers former NF (EPP) and BPP (EPP) members.

Radical Party of Oleh Liashko (RP∼ECR) — socially conservative, economically left, pro-EU, has one representative in the EC group in PACE.

All-Ukrainian Union ‘Freedom’ (Svoboda∼NI) — right-wing to far-right, nationalistic, slightly pro-EU, former member of the AENM party.

It is difficult to predict how many seats in Parliament each party will achieve, since Ukraine has a mixed electoral system with one half of the seats being distributed proportionally in the nationwide constituency and the other half — through a single-round first-past-the-post system in 225 single-member constituencies, while 26 of these constituencies are currently not controlled by the Ukrainian state, leaving their seats empty.

Co-authored by Leon Andrius Liesener, edited by Euan Healey
The party labels in the article have been updated in June 2020 for clarification and to match our current usage