Sergiy Gerasimchuk, Foreign Policy Council "Ukrainian Prism"

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Ukraine’s second round of elections took place on April, 21 with a well-known showman and comic Vladimir Zelensky winning the presidency. The winner managed to secure 73% of votes while his main opponent, Ukraine’s incumbent president Poroshenko only got 25%.

Zelensky became the winner in all macro-regions of Ukraine, while Poroshenko – only in Lviv region. Yet it cannot be said that the people of Ukraine united for shaping a positive agenda as this candidate’s campaign was built according to the “good vs. evil” principle, without revealing the very mechanisms of building a new better Ukraine. “Team Zelensky” still remains a mystery. Separate surnames were named as counselors of the president-elect, however, they do not provide a general picture of his vision of Ukraine’s domestic and foreign policy priorities.

Moreover, looming parliamentary elections this fall in fact mean that Ukraine’s political system will go through some turbulent times at least in the nearest six months. This is only a start and the most interesting development is yet to come.

The loser’s triumph?

It looks like the man learning his biggest lesson during the elections was the incumbent president Petro Poroshenko. During his presidency his team successfully navigated between different political groups, which allowed them to keep their power monopoly. However, situational alliances with former rivals from ex-representatives of “Party of Regions” and rising tensions with his Maidan partners – “People’s Front” led by Arseny Yatsnenyuk, Yulia Tymoshenko’s “Batkivshchyna” and “Samopomich” headed by Andriy Sadovyi did not result in the strategic benefits initially desired. Essentially, Poroshenko made the same mistake as Viktor Yushchenko, who quarreled with the so-called “orange team” in the first years of his presidency as well, which in the end led to his defeat. Moreover, the president’s team built his campaign around his confrontation with Tymoshenko, not perceiving Vladimir Zelensky as a potential opponent. In their turn, Zelensky’s team was able to skillfully use the fact that Poroshenko became the target for criticism coming from all other candidates running for presidency.  

Already after Poroshenko turned out to be the runner up according to the results of the first ballot, giving up the first place to Zelensky and having only a small advantage compared to the results of Tymoshenko, he thought harder and began to diligently correct his own mistakes. The president got rid of many notorious figures associated with corruption in the circles of the head of the state, publicly admitted his mistakes in making some appointments, and even agreed to a dialogue with his rival Zelensky in the format of an exciting (however poor in terms of content) show taking place at the main stadium of the country. However, neither lessons learned nor his active electoral campaign and fair reminders regarding the real threat coming from the Russian Federation did not help Poroshenko gain his victory.  

It would seem that such bitter defeat is Poroshenko’s only destiny, however, the lost presidential battle did not become his one-way ticket to the trash heap of history. He has a lot to be proud of. Poroshenko’s predecessor, fugitive president Viktor Yanukovich left the country with an empty treasury and its enemy at the gate, and these factors inevitably made their impact on the starting positions of president Poroshenko. However, in the past year the president managed to significantly strengthen the army as the supreme commander-in-chief as well as to keep Western support while fighting Moscow, keep the regime of sanctions, and achieve a visa-free regime with the European Union and the recognition of the autocephaly for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Although it was mostly thanks to the pressure coming from international institutions, much was achieved in terms of reforming the state: electronic tax filing for state employees, creating anti-corruption bodies, working together with the government in order to strengthen Ukrainian economy and cooperating with international financial structures, and decentralization – all these factors create a significant political heritage Poroshenko is leaving to his successor.

Despite losing the elections, Poroshenko was able to consolidate quite many active and politically competent citizens of Ukraine around him. Many of his 25 % voters evaluated his work rather highly, forgave his mistakes and even came to the president’s administration building on April, 22, the day following the election day when his defeat became obvious, in order to show their gratitude in a moving gesture. These voters will be able to become the electoral core of the political party Poroshenko is planning to participate in the parliamentary elections with. It is also important that the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars is supporting him as well. The unchallenged authority of Mustafa Dzhemilev, the leader of the Crimean Tatars, will help Poroshenko to get the votes of one of Ukraine’s core nations.

At the same time, Poroshenko’s epic defeat may help him lose those false allies who only wanted to be his political companions in times of his successful presidency and will not take the risk of joining him in opposition.

The main task for Poroshenko is to learn his lesson and not lose his support before the parliamentary elections take place, and then the ex-president’s chances to remain in big politics will increase.  

The winner’s burden?

Ukraine’s new president-elect, at first sight, hit a jackpot big time. His campaign was exciting and extraordinary, with his support setting a record for a new high. In the eyes of the majority of Ukrainian citizens Zelensky, a showman, is a new face that embodies their hope for ending the recession, reloading Minsk agreements and putting an end to a war with Russia, while achieving a final victory in its fight with corruption. However, the expectations of Zelensky’s electorate may backfire. In the heat of the moment, when fighting the opponent, Zelensky’s team was generous with lavish promises.  The people, having trusted a promising candidate, now await the end of the “epoch of poverty” and the beginning of the “epoch of honesty”. However, having secured the desired victory the representatives of Zelensky’s team are forced to disavow some of their promises. It is obvious Russia is not going to make any concessions and on the contrary, poses a threat for further escalation in the east of Ukraine. Moscow simplifies Russian citizenship procedure for Donbass residents, which, in the end, will allow Kremlin to manipulate its right to protect their new Russian citizens. Fighting corruption is not that easy as well. The President does not have the direct authority to initiate judicial decisions and, moreover, to predetermine such decisions. The country’s economic policy is still determined by the Cabinet of Ministers and presidential power in this respect is also rather limited.

Zelensky could significantly boost his sphere of influence if he got the support of the Parliament’s majority. However, the current majority will hardly re-orient with the new head of state in mind. The new parliament will be formed in the elections coming this fall, however, by this time Zelensky himself can lose some part of his rating and then the support for his political power “The People’s Servant” will not be as high.  Given such conditions, there is a temptation to dissolve the current Parliament and call for early elections – they would provide for a large faction appearing in the country’s Parliament and supporting Zelensky. However, there may appear some legal obstacles. It is not possible to dissolve Parliament unless it happens at least six months prior to the planned elections. Time is of the essence for the president-elect. If his inauguration takes place later than at least six months ahead of the parliamentary elections, he will not be able to dissolve the current Verkhovna Rada without taking some steps questionable from the legal standpoint.  

Another issue the president-elect Zelensky is going to face – the appetites of the “shareholders” of his presidential campaign. It is not a secret that before and during the elections he was considerably supported by Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoisky. To say the least, the national “1+1” TV channel Kolomoisky owns was very active in supporting Zelensky and brutally criticizing Poroshenko. It is quite plausible that Kolomoisky will want his share of power as a sign of gratitude. If this is the case, Zelensky will either have to confront Kolomoisky, which means in fact losing a media resource prior to parliamentary elections, or accepting Kolomoisky’s partnership and sharing power with all reputational losses following in aftermath.

In other words, despite such a landslide victory, unquestionable support of a considerable part of the country’s population and his ambitious plans, the future president is at the same time facing major challenges, with his ability to deal with these challenges mostly determining not only Zelensky’s own political future but also the future of Ukraine.

Allies and rivals

The political duel between Poroshenko and Zelensky somewhat overshadowed other candidates and influential political figures in Ukraine. However, they are now maximizing their efforts in order to compensate for the loss in the presidential race and get decent representation in the new parliament.

Yulia Tymoshenko, who took the third place in the presidential elections, maintained her dignity while suffering a heavy blow to her ambitions to become head of state. Tymoshenko will probably attempt to compensate for her defeat by running a successful parliamentary campaign.

If parliamentary elections take place in the fall, Tymoshenko will get a chance to criticize both Poroshenko and Zelensky and get a part of their electorate. Her ultimate mission is to receive enough mandates in order to compete for a chance to become prime minister. And even though many swiftly “buried” Tymoshenko’s political career, past experiences demonstrate that she is able to return to the political arena even having much worse initial positions.  

Vladimir Groysman, the incumbent prime minister, also made a statement about his own political ambitions. Having been overshadowed by president Poroshenko up until recent times, now Groysman is saying he is going to take part in the parliamentary elections as a separate political power, with the prime minister attempting to demonstrate his success to his electorate and explain that he is equally responsible for the economic success of the recent years alongside Poroshenko.

It seems that Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko also developed a political appetite. He supported Poroshenko at the previous parliamentary elections, but now, most probably, is ready to start his independent political journey.  

There is still an ongoing intrigue involving another celebrity of Ukrainian politics Svyatoslav Vakarchuk. He is a celebrated musician,known in many corners of the world. He was perceived as a potential candidate running for presidential elections, however, he chose not to run. Yet Vakarchuk made a statement that he is interested in political life, and therefore, he can either play an independent role or support one of the existing political parties at the coming parliamentary elections.

“Party of Regions” figures should not be ignored as well. The fiasco of this political power after Yanukovich fled can now be attempted to be compensated for by its representatives who might try to infiltrate Zelensky’s team as well as try their luck in the parliamentary elections under the flags of new political projects.  

Finally the presidential campaign demonstrated that political ambitions of the “grey cardinal” of Ukrainian politics Viktor Medvedchuk have increased. If he had been satisfied with his de facto status of Vladimir Putin’s representative up until recently, prior to the presidential elections he demonstrated his readiness to resurface and compete for a public political status and the parliamentary elections will give him such an opportunity.

While the enemy is still at the gate…

Political diversity and pluralism demonstrated by presidential elections are most probably going to be repeated during the parliamentary elections and this is saying that Ukraine is confidently developing its democracy. Competitive ideas and visions regarding the future of the state, political battles and a transparent electoral process make Ukraine stand out in the eyes of the international democratic community.

Yet the emotional tensions of the recent elections, polar political views of the opponents and their readiness to fight for power using any means available demonstrated that in the heat of domestic political battles many in Ukraine forgot about Moscow, its main foreign observer at the current elections, while with any president and any configuration of power in the new parliament Ukraine’s success is unfavorable and even dramatically dangerous to Russia and the latter is going to use all its resources in order to prevent that. This is exactly what both Ukrainian political figures and Ukrainian people need to keep in mind. The survival of the country is what is at stake…