The Ukrainian politics are catching up with changes in a society

Arseniy Svynarenko,
Research Fellow,
Faculty of Social Sciences, Tampere University,
Lecturer in Ukrainian studies, University of Helsinki

In Ukraine the political parties resemble groups of elites with own interest, and they are far away from the genuine parties and participatory politics. For decades, the neo-patrimonial system of corrupt informal interdependencies, services and favours continue to resist to reforms of state institutes, judicial and economic structures (see Fisun, 2012). The 2014 parliamentary elections brought to politics a handful of civic activists and former volunteer fighters. The biggest political groups-parties were rebranded, while the values and principles of their leaders remained mostly unchanged. Opinion polls after the Euromaidan demonstrated that the Ukrainians expected  from politicians to focus on resolving the military conflict, improving the economic situation in Ukraine, and fighting corruption. During the following 5 years political elites could not deliver on their promises. In 2019 the majority of voters were tired with the war and disappointment with politicians. This resulted in a major political shift during presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019.

During his inauguration on 21 May 2019 President Volodymir Zelensky dissolved the 8th convocation of Parliament (Rada). In his speech, Zelensky asked members of the 8th Rada to vote for the laws that would remove their immunity from prosecution, reintroduce the criminal responsibility for unlawful enrichment, and change the election law. He concluded speech with a reference to his previous career of comedian: “Throughout my life I tried to do everything to make Ukrainians smile. That was my mission. Now I will do everything to prevent the Ukrainians from crying.” This was a response to voters who shared different ideologies, supported different parties, and now shared common tiredness with war and corruption. On July 21, 2019 the current 9th convocation of Rada was elected on early elections.

The early Rada elections allowed Zelensky to capitalize on the support, which he received during the presidential campaign. His campaign organization now focused on selection of candidates for a freshly registered political party. Zelenskiy follows the steps of many of his predecessors: making a new party for new elections and using his power in the interest of this party. The name of the new presidential party was taken from the TV comedy Servant to People (SP). In this comedy, Volodimir Zelensky had a lead part of a schoolteacher Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko, who became a president of Ukraine. According to the series’ plot, a group of shadowy oligarchs noticed a viral YouTube video with a teacher Holoborodko and nominated him for presidency. They expected to keep control behind the facade figure of “people’s president”.  Ironically, the very same accusations President Zelensky faced during and after election campaigns when his opponents accused him of being dependable on Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoysky.

The during the parliament elections the SP lead by Dmytro Razumkov had to recruit rapidly a sufficient number of candidates to cover most of constituencies and fill the candidates’ list.  Ihor Kolomoysky’s TV channel 1+1 gave the party an access to one of the biggest tv audiences in Ukraine. In addition, a very significant role had the social media campaign. The SP’s digital office was led by an IT entrepreneur Mikhailo Fedorov who successfully organized a network of regional party offices, volunteers, their training, coordination of campaign messages and work with social media to support the party and its candidates.  A virtual political party got its faces and key messages.

Dmytro Razumkov declared that no incumbent deputies would be included on the SP’s party list. As a result, almost all of SP’s 254 deputies were unknown in the national level politics. Among these new deputies many local politicians and middle-size or small entrepreneurs. There is also a distinct group of two dozens MPs thought be loyal to Ihor Kolomoysky. The fresh looking party attracted attention of those voters of very diverse interests and ideological camps. The SP’s voters share a strong feeling of disappointed with political elites and distrust in towards the parliament (campaign slogan was “Let’s trounce them again!”). Interestingly, the leader of SP Dmytro Razumkov and a few other public figures from the SP party spoke exclusively Russian in all their public appearances. They also spoke in very general terms the war in Eastern Ukraine, and about relations with Russia. This was a striking contrast to the militarist and nationalist rhetoric of Poroshenko’s party European Solidarity (got 25 seats, lost 107 seats comparing to previous elections, campaign slogan was “Let’s protect the European future of Ukraine!”) and openly pro-Russian rhetoric of the former Party of Regions and rebranded as Opposition Platform for Life (43 seats, second larges groups in Rada, their campaign slogan was “United for peace”).

The 9th convocation of Ukraine’s parliament is very different a preceding convocation. It is the youngest Ukrainian parliament to date. Number of MPs, aged from 21 to 45 has increased by 26%. There are 17 MPs aged from 21 to 30 years old, and 121 MPs from 31 to 45 years old. From the total number of 424 elected MPs only 82 have been re-elected in this parliamentary election. As many as 342 newly-elected MPs have got into the Parliament for the first time. Although the parliament is male dominated  – 336 men (80%) and 88 women (20%),  there is 34 female MPs more comparing to previous convocation.

The 2019 elections marked probably the most significant changes in Ukrainian politics since the Euromaidan revolution. The society and its political culture has changed. There is less tolerance to corruption. Voters want to reload politics with more young people and women, fewer older figures and ideological extremes. In the past western regions voted for nationalist and pro-European parties, Central Ukraine voted for leftist and populist parties, East Ukraine voted for pro-Russian parties. In 2019 the Servant to People won in almost all regions. It was a protest against old elites and their corrupt practices. For the first time in Ukrainian history, the president gets 70 approval ratings and this disarms most of his opponents. Such parties as  the Fatherland (26 MPs), the Voice (20 MPs), Opposition Platform for Life (43) are probably expecting that the internal conflicts with in the SP will cause the fragmentation of single party majority and any of them may gain significant political weight in talks about the joining the future coalition.

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