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24 August, 2019  ▪  Oleksandr Kramar

Under the pressure of its weight

The only barrier to a long usurpation of power by the one-party propresident majority will be fragmentation of his faction in parliament amidst the lack of serious competition and temptations of power

The one-party majority of the Servant of the People, President Zelenskiy’s party that is still an unknown, is a unique phenomenon in Ukraine’s history and a source of huge challenges in terms of voluntarism from the new team in power. This situation, however, should not be seen as a tragedy. Instead, it could be perceived as a necessary lesson and the negative experience inevitable on the path of society towards political maturity. 

For decades, Ukraine has lived with a popular myth claiming that its problems are caused by the unchanging political class that emerged in the 1990s and has since co-opted newcomers while filtering out the lifesaving “new faces.” Whenever a team or messiah in power needed an excuse for failing to deliver a miracle, they blamed it on the need to work in coalition with other forces. Meanwhile, expectations of quick and easy steps to solve complex and entrenched problems have grown. This created an electoral environment increasingly ripe for populism. This has led to the unprecedented triumph of Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his Servant of the People party. Someone distant from governance or understanding of political processes became president with 73%, while his political force staffed with passers-by was handed one-party majority with almost 60% of the mandates available without the 26 vacant seats for single-member constituencies currently occupied by Russia. Now, Ukrainian society will learn that “full renewal of power” does not matter on its own. History illustrates this. When slaves rebelled against owners in ancient Egypt and won, that did not change the essence of the system. The slaves became the owners while their former owners turned into slaves. Ukraine’s hope is that most citizens will learn the right lessons from the current experience and will be more responsible about its choice in the future. 

When 20 stands for 60

The triumph of the Servant of the People, a party indifferent to Ukraine’s national interests, is a result of massive distortion of electoral sentiments in Ukraine. It stems from the extremely low turnout (as was the intention with calling the election in late July, a vacation season) and the fragmentation of votes among various opponents. As a result, President Zelenskiy’s party got the majority of 254 seats out of the 424 available for election thanks to the support of just a fifth of all registered voters.  

In addition to that, over 2 million or 14.1% votes of the pro-Ukrainian electorate were wasted by the political forces that scored anywhere between 0.6% and 4%. This exceeds the cumulative result of Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity and Sviatoslav Vakarchuk’s Holos. The top wasters included Ihor Smeshko’s Force and Honor, Oleh Liashko’s Radical Party, Volodymyr Hroysman’s Ukrainian Strategy, Svoboda, Anatoliy Hrytsenko’s Civic Position and Andriy Sadoviy’s Samopomich. If these votes were not wasted, the Servant of the People would end up with just 105 out of 225 seats under the party-list system (it now has 124), while Viktor Medvedchuk’s Opposition Platform – For Life, an anti-Ukrainian force, would have 32, not 37 seats. All it would have taken was for the parties polling below the 5% threshold to withdraw from the race. This would have left the Servant of the People without one-party majority, forcing it to enter into blocs with other parties and creating more checks and balances against anti-Ukrainian initiatives in parliament.

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Single-member constituencies saw stronger distortions of electoral sentiments. Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s party gained 130 out of 199 seats with just 31% or 4.6 million votes for candidates in single-member constituencies. With a turnout of just 50%, the support of 15.6% of the voters was enough.

In many constituencies, the Servant of the People candidates had to gain just 15-25% to get into parliament. With a turnout of 50%, this is an equivalent of 8-12% of registered voters. For example, Volodymyr Tymofiychuk got into parliament in district 89 in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast with just under 11,900 votes out of 143,300 registered voters. This was possible thanks to the rivalry of Svoboda, Civic Position, Batkivshchyna, European Solidarity and Vitaliy Klitschko’s UDAR that got anywhere between 3,000 and 10,000 votes each. Results were similar in Lviv Oblast: Yuriy Kamelchuk became MP with 12,200 out of 141,900 registered voters and Orest Salamakha won with 14,100 out of 168,800 registered voters. Both newly-elected MPs ran with the Servant of the People. Mykhailo Laba got a mandate in Zakarpattia with the votes of 18,500 out of 162,400 voters. Ihor Fris and Oleksandr Matusevych got in from Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast with 17,900 out of 161,800 and 17,100 out of 144,200 voters respectively. 

Such examples are plenty in every region. Servant of the People’s Ihor Vasyliv became MP in Ternopil Oblast thanks to the votes of 18,500 out of 164,300 registered voters. Heorhiy Mazurashu won in Bukovyna with 18,400 out of 175,500 voters. Mykhailo Koliukh got a mandate in Kyiv Oblast with 18,700 out of 148,100 voters. Anton Poliakov won in Chernihiv Oblast with 16,100 out of 140,300 voters. Oleksiy Kuznetsov in Luhansk Oblast got into parliament with 10,100 out of 98,700 voters in the constituency, and Anastasia Liashenko got in with a mere 18,200 out of 149,800 voters in Poltava Oblast. 

Even in Kyiv, Servant of the People’s Anna Purtova became MP with 17,900 out of 174,800 voters, or just 10% of the voters registered in the constituency. This was enough to beat experienced politicians, such as Roman Bezsmertnyi or Leonid Yemets. This happened because three candidates oriented at the pro-Ukrainian electorate ran, eventually receiving 9,000-13,000 votes each. Maksym Buzhansky, a blogger known for his anti-Ukrainian views, won in Dnipro Oblast, a core one for the Servant of the People, with just 18,900 out of 139,000 registered voters. Oleksandr Dubinsky, a notorious media killer, got into parliament in Kyiv Oblast with the support of 27,900 out of 150,900 registered voters.

Single-member constituencies have again tilted the result towards politicians that are hostile or indifferent to Ukraine’s interests. This is because of the disproportionate map of electoral districts. Lviv and Donetsk oblasts have 12 each, even if Lviv Oblast has the population of 2.5 million people while the Kyiv-controlled Donetsk Oblast has 1.85 million people. Kharkiv Oblast has as many residents as Lviv Oblast does, yet the number of single-member constituencies there is 14. Luhansk Oblast has 6 and just 700,000 residents in its Kyiv-controlled part. Volyn, Ternopil or Rivne oblasts have just 5 constituencies each and 1-1.1 million people. Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast has 7 and around 1.4 million residents. Zaporizhzhia Oblast has 9 constituencies and 1.7 million residents while Kyiv Oblast has 8 and 1.8 million people. Dnipro Oblast has 17 single-member constituencies and 3.2 million people while Kyiv has just 13 with its population of 2.9 million (even Kharkiv Oblast has more with its 2.65 million people). This list is not complete.

The keys to success and defeat 

The fact that the Servant of the People has triumphed thanks to the fragmentation and mutual destruction between its opponents amplified by low voter turnout is key to understanding the weakness of the new conglomerate in power which may currently look like an absolute favorite of Ukrainians. The range between 5.7 million votes or 30% in the first round of the presidential election and 6.3 million or 43% in the early parliamentary election thanks to the low turnout is the electoral ceiling of Zelenskiy’s party. As the voters get disappointed with his and his team’s failure to deliver on the obviously inflated expectations, the support for the Servant of the People will continue to fall. The question is whether his opponents learn their lessons by the local elections which the President’s Office will want to conduct as soon as possible. This fall is the likely timeframe.

An agreement to withdraw between the parties polling below the threshold and to nominate one most popular candidate in single-member constituencies between all parties competing for the pro-Ukrainian electorate, even if highly unlikely, can deal an unexpected blow to the Servant of the People in local elections in most regions. This would also minimize chances for the President’s Office to place its people at the helm of the key cities. A defeat of the Servant of the People in local elections could drive a change of the Verkhovna Rada amidst growing voter frustration with Zelenskiy and the Servant of the People. As a result, a more adequate composition of the parliament and the team in power could become a possibility by the fall of 2020.

There will be no real counterweight to the one-party majority of the Servant of the People in the newly-elected Verkhovna Rada. At the very best, the opposition will have enough mandates to prevent Zelenskiy’s administration from gaining constitutional majority. In all other aspects, the European Solidarity, Fatherland, the Opposition Platform – For Life and the fragmented self-nominated MPs are too few and diverse to counter the Servant of the People. Paradoxically, though, concerns about Zelenskiy’s regime cementing itself are overplayed. The nature of his party’s triumph creates the ground for the crumbling of this populist conglomerate under its own weight. How fast this happens depends on the mistakes of those in power and the ability of their political opponents to learn their lessons from the crushing defeat, or on the emergence of a new alternative project. 

The Servant of the People will grow more fragmented as a result of three emerging factors. One is the diversity of people in the party list. Many of them have gotten into politics by accident, especially in a number of single-member constituencies. The other factor is the crystalizing competing centers in Zelenskiy’s team. The third factor is inevitable frustration with the new government because of diverging, inflated and often unrealistic expectations from the voters. More factors can emerge with time as the one-party majority splits into interest groups or new conflicts spark within the team in power. 

Still, the three factors listed above are enough to gradually dilute the Servant of the People’s one-party majority from the early days of the new Verkhovna Rada. The more the party’s voters are frustrated with the real politics of Zelenskiy and his “economic gurus” in government, the more obvious internal fractures will become. For the sake of their political survival, the “servants” will look for someone to blame in the eyes of frustrated voters and seek alternative identifiers for themselves in politics. Different groups within the one-party majority will look for support in traditional identification niches: the nominally pro-Western and pro-Russian ones, democratic or authoritarian, market or command, oligarchic or anti-oligarchic.

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As a result of all this, fracture lines will grow more obvious in the monomajority. It may remain nominally consolidated for some time, including with an effort of the President’s Office in passing key decisions, but divides will be increasingly palpable. The ground for this is ripe thanks to the composition of the Servant of the People faction. The presence of many MPs elected in single-member constituencies will play against the president’s party.The party’s nominees won in virtually all regions of Ukraine; but they lost where strong self-nominated alternative candidates ran or the number of competitors from many different parties was not high enough to push the victory threshold too low. For example, Zelenskiy’s party got no mandates in the Ukraine-controlled part of Donetsk Oblast and got just one seat in Luhansk Oblast, Volyn and Zakarpattia. But servants won all or virtually all single-member constituencies in Southern and Central Ukraine. Their results in Bukovyna (all four constituencies), Rivne Oblast (four out of five), Ivano-Frankivsk (five out of seven) or Ternopil Oblast (three out of five) are higher compared to Vinnytsia (three out of eight constituencies), Chernihiv Oblast (four out of six) or Khmelnytsky Oblast (four out of seven). 

The party obviously did not expect its nominees to get into the Rada in many parts of the country , so they did not pass proper vetting or harmonization of political views. The Servant of the People brand served as a banner for people with the most diverse backgrounds and political views. As single-member constituency MPs, they were “directly elected by people” in their districts and will feel minimally dependent on their faction discipline and will be the first to respond to any change in electoral moods, including in their constituencies. 


Translated by Anna Korbut 

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