2019 marks the a key year in Ukrainian politics: presidential elections in March and parliamentary elections in October are set to overturn the status quo
Five years ago Ukrainians voted in parliamentary elections that overturned Ukrainian politics. In August 2014, Ukrainian troops had endured a crushing defeat at the battle of Ilovaisk. Hundreds of Ukrainians soldiers died in a battle in which the Russian army unleashed its force to consolidate a separatist hold on the breakaway Donbass region in Eastern Ukraine. President Poroshenko called for early elections, pleading Ukrainians to sweep away the pre-revolutionary old guard: “I don’t know how to work with a parliament in which a huge number [of deputies], whole factions, make up ‘the fifth column’ controlled from abroad [referring to Russia]. And this danger is only increasing.” Ukrainians heeded his call to action: newcomers filled the parliament—out of the six parties represented at the parliament, four were new, and the former ruling Party of Regions disintegrated.
Tymoshenko and her party expected to triumph
On the 31st of March, Ukrainians will vote in the presidential elections, and later this year in October, parliamentary elections will follow. An earlier SSU article shed light on the possibly dramatic outcome in the presidential election, where the incumbent Petro Poroshenko is likely to lose his seat to former prime minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, a political heavyweight since the late 1990s. A controversial figure, Yuliya Tymoshenko knows the shadowy side of Ukrainian politics inside and out. She made a billion-dollar fortune with shady energy deals in the 1990s, used her inside knowledge in attempts to fight corruption, became Ukraine’s prime minister after the 2004 Orange revolution, was eventually thrown in prison by her political opponent, Ukraine’s ousted president Viktor Yanukovych.
When Tymoshenko took the stage during the 2014 Euromaidan revolution seated in a wheelchair, many discounted her as someone whose star no longer shined. Ukraine was heading for a bright new future without the old faces of the past. Her Fatherland party received only 5% of the vote in the 2014 parliamentary elections, but Tymoshenko persisted. Fatherland abandoned the coalition government in 2016 and started building support by criticizing the government for a slow pace of reforms and forgetting the country’s poor.
Now, as Tymoshenko is the leading contender to become Ukraine’s next president, her Fatherland party looks poised to become the largest party in the parliament as well. In latest polls, the Fatherland party has enjoyed popular support of a bit under 20%, while Poroshenko’s party, which won the previous elections with a similar share of the vote, is now down to slightly over 10%. Three other parties are competing with Poroshenko’s Bloc with a same level of support: Servant of the People, Civic Position, and Opposition Platform—For Life.
Failure of the revolutionary reformers opens the door to comic reliefs
The People’s Front, which received the most votes in the previous election, is not competing at all. The downfall of the party, whose leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk was Ukraine’s prime minister for two years from 2014 until 2016, shows the depth of resentment at the failure of the post-revolution politics to deliver on the hopes and promises of the revolution. In a recent poll, whooping 87% told that they were dissatisfied with the work of the parliament, 81% were disappointed with the president Poroshenko, and 79% with prime minister Volodymyr Groysman. The political scene seems ripe for anyone who accuses the government of failing to deliver on reforms.
Servant of the People, a populist party of the actor Volodomyr Zelenskiy (who has emerged as one of the leading candidates in the presidential election) is competing for the title of the second largest party in the Rada. Zelinskiy is a political outsider but a national celebrity. In his television show, the most watched series in the country, Zelinskiy plays Ukraine’s president. In reality, he does not have a clear platform, but many seem ready to trust him to bring a breath of fresh air to Ukrainian politics. Servant of the People, the fictional party of the television series, is now a real political party but without a party program or prominent members beyond Zelenskiy himself. Nevertheless, in the latest polls, the party has received over 10% of support.
No roads lead to Moscow
Pro-Russian parties have struggled to make gains in Ukrainian politics since the breakup of the Party of Regions. Not surprisingly, the war with Russia in Eastern Ukraine has tarnished the reputation of Russia as a positive partner for Ukraine. One of the affiliates of the former party of power, Opposition Platform—for Life, is nevertheless supported by around 10% of Ukrainian voters. Headed by one of Ukraine’s wealthiest oligarchs, Viktor Medvedchuk, a personal friend of Vladimir Putin, the Opposition Platform is the only major party in the Ukrainian political scene that openly opposes Ukraine’s integration with the West.
The parliamentary elections are still far away, and around half of the voters are undecided, but right now Yuliya Tymoshenko and her Fatherland party are the leading contenders to seize power in Ukraine. The majority of Ukrainian parties are fractured and unconsolidated, and the formation of the government will almost certainly require a coalition with either Poroshenko’s party or the wild card, the Servant of the People. Many who are disappointed at the sluggish pace of reforms hope for change but expect little. What they might get is worse.
Fears that Tymoshenko might bring the slow pace of reforms to a standstill
Despite the disappointing pace, Poroshenko and Groysman’s government have implemented many reforms. Anyone can now access the information on public procurements through an open portal, much of the red tape that has hampered doing business have been removed, and finally, in last summer, an anti-corruption court was established. Many experts agree that the government has done too little, too late. For example, in an expert poll, 73% of people who work with legislation consider the implementation of the judicial reforms to be a failure.
Tymoshenko has joined the crowd that criticizes the current government for a disappointing track record, but she promises few positive changes. She is a skilful politician who understands that people’s main concern is poverty and unemployment. The war dominates perceptions of Ukraine abroad, but for its citizens utility bills can take over half of the disposable income of a working-class household. Tymoshenko has promised to alleviate the widespread deprivation with subsidies but has shown little willingness to embrace market-oriented reforms that might help to build a more long-term prosperous Ukraine. When the war broke out Ukraine’s currency, the hryvnia, plummeted, and the country fell into a recession. Now Ukraine’s economy has grown at a modest 3% rate for a couple years, but remains dependent on foreign loans, especially from the IMF. Tymoshenko has openly rejected many of the reforms that IMF lists as a necessary precondition for further investments and her party is against a land reform bill that would allow the sale of agricultural land, which could help Ukraine to tap into its enormous potential as the breadbasket of Europe.
Ukrainians call the 2014 revolution as the Revolution of Dignity. After years of corruption, shady politics, and special interests, Ukrainians finally stood up and told the leadership that enough was enough. Many, especially among the younger generation, felt that the ousting of Yanukovych marked a watershed moment, which would mark the first steps towards a European, modern Ukraine. Now the general feeling is that of apathy. The will did not translate into real change. Some bet on a fictional president to shake up the stale political reality, and many are ready to give the wheel to the woman who knows the system better than anyone. In geopolitics, not much would likely change. Tymoshenko is committed to pursuing deepening relations with the West, and there is little appetite in Ukraine to return to Moscow’s realm, but in the domestic sphere, many fear that she might be too entrenched in the system to change it.