Parliamentary Election — 2019: A Chance for Real Changes or an Experiment with Unexpected Results?

December 04, 2019

(Summary of Analytical report of the Razumkov Centre, prepared for the project “Coalition Agreement for the new Ukrainian Parliament”, jointly implemented by the Razumkov Centre and Ukrainian Office of Konrad Adenauer Foundation)

The 2019 parliamentary election, purposefully turned into a snap election, became the second crucial element in the process of complete overturn of top government institutions in Ukraine (president, parliament, government) and a step towards a full replacement of the governing elite. This objective has been achieved: political party ‘Servant of the People’ became the first party in modern history of Ukraine to successfully form a parliamentary majority on its own (with the rights of Coalition of MP factions).

The unprecedented success of ‘Servant of the People’ party in the parliamentary elections was directly related to the following factors:

(1) High level of personal support of the newly elected president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is tightly linked to the ‘Servant of the People’ brand. A brief interval between the presidential and parliamentary campaigns led to the electoral ‘spill-over’ both from candidates associated with the political parties and from ‘defeated’ candidates to the party related to the winner. The political party identified with Volodymyr Zelenskyy has won the biggest prize.

(2) The overall trend in the latest parliamentary election was the targeting of a large portion of voters according to their political party liking. This pattern was typical for voters of all eight most popular political parties. The dominant party ‘Servant of the People’, however, became the main beneficiary of this electoral behaviour. High rating of this party affords its candidates to win in most single-mandate constituencies.

(3) The president's party has managed to overcome the socio-cultural division between the pro-European patriotic ‘West’ and the pro-Russian ‘East’. It focused on highlighting its contrast to old political elite and diversifying specifically tailored messages (similarly to Volodymyr Zelenskyy's presidential campaign) to different target audiences. Due to this the party was able to garner support of voters with contrasting political views from different parts of Ukraine. Instead, parties represented by the ‘old politicians’ were largely pushed out of their traditional electoral field by the ‘Servant of the People’ and received fewer votes.

In general, the electoral programme and electoral base of the ‘Servant of the People’ may be characterized as eclectic. The party's programme is focused on meeting the expectations of the electorate, including voters with contradicting approaches to different policy scenarios on different sectors. Although this approach has ensured broad electoral support, it contains threatens for further party activities (organisational, image-related, electoral, etc). A lack of ideological basis in the election programme, ‘the whatever you wish’ approach and declared anti-elitist nature make ‘Servant of the People’ the first ‘classic’ populist party in Ukraine1.

Statistically, opinions of ‘Servant of the People’ voters do not differ much from opinions of all Ukrainian citizens polled. They rather support the promotion policy of the Ukrainian language and the introduction of the Ukrainian language as the only official language of instruction at schools. Meanwhile, almost half of them would also agree on the regional status of the Russian language; their approach to history combines both the national and the Russian-Soviet narrative (at least within the ‘Eastern Slavic unity’ framework); yet most of them have accepted the de-communisation process and do not wish to revise it.

‘Servant of the People’ voters do not have a predominant opinion on restoring economic ties with Russia; they rather support the need to achieve ‘peace at any cost’, however, they object to Donbas ‘special status’ and abandonment of Crimea. ‘Servant of the People’ voters are characterised by overly high social expectations coupled with low economic responsibility: expecting the government to provide free healthcare, higher education, housing for young families, etc. along with full support of lower taxes idea.

The ‘Servant of the People’ party is currently in the centre of the political landscape of the Verkhovna Rada (9th convocation). There are also two opposition wings in the parliament: ‘patriotic opposition’ (‘European Solidarity’) and ‘pro-Russian’ (‘Opposition Platform — For Life’). ‘Holos’ and ‘Batkivshchyna’ could potentially cooperate with the government party, however, this cooperation might have certain ‘red lines’: as to the ‘patriotic’ opposition these are foremost related to concessions regarding the special status of Donbas and the general drifting on ‘pro-Russian’ direction, as to the ‘pro-Russian’ opposition — the introduction of free farmland sale and reduction of social benefits. Yet, if ‘Servant of the People’ faction keeps unity, they will need other parties' support only for amendments of the Constitution.

Complete reformatting of the political landscape has caused the advantageous framework for the effective reforms implementation. All top government institutions, as well as security forces and law enforcement agencies are being controlled by the only ‘political team’. However, the legitimate influence on the political process by the opposition is limited. Components safeguarding the concentration of power by the president are restricted. Namely, the role of the parliament is weakened, authoritarian trends in the body of government officials are being formed, political opposition and civil society groups critical to the new government are being ignored or ‘stigmatised’.

In the parliament of the previous convocation the political course of the country was mainly determined by the balance between ‘pro-European’ and ‘pro-Russian’ factions, pro-government and opposition factions and the permanent threat of the street protests escalation (if the government crosses numerous ‘red lines’).

At present, the president has many more options for voluntarist decisions: the single-party parliamentary majority will ensure nearly automatic approval of such decisions, and the possibility of any large-scale protests is currently limited due to the narrow segment of society ready to go to protest (because of the high level of support of the authorities) and lack of popular opposition leaders.

Government actions that can cause a rapid decline of public support and potential escalation of protests include foremost reintegration of Donbas on Russia's conditions (autonomous status, own police, prosecution and courts, language self-determination, trans-border coordination with Russia, amnesty for ‘LPR’/‘DPR’ fighters). This option is unacceptable for 48% of responds; another 39% disagree with the statement ‘Ukraine needs peace at any cost’. Thus, implementation of this scenario will sharply increase protest potential in the patriotic segment of society. This will also make authorities too toxic for cooperation with parliamentary factions targeting the patriotic segment (foremost, ‘Holos’).

The idea of farmland market has not found public support as yet. 49% of respondents are against the ‘strong’ resolution of the farmland market issue (‘Adoption of farmland market Law and lifting the Moratorium on purchase and sale of agricultural land by 1 December 2019’). The ‘light’ version of statement on purchase and sale of the agricultural land (‘citizens of Ukraine must have the right to freely purchase and sell agricultural land’) is rejected by 43% of respondents. ‘Batkivshchyna’ faction has been an outspoken opponent of opening the farmland market, so lifting the moratorium is likely to switch this faction to opposition.

As 51% of citizens do not support a broader scope of presidential powers, further steps in this direction might also become an irritant for the society.

A large part of expert community is already pointing out the pre-conditions for an increase of authoritarian trends in authorities’ actions.2 There have already been examples of actions on limiting political pluralism3 and establishing control over local self-governments.4 The threat of authoritarianism may urge civic opposition, political and business groups to move proactively, radicalise protest groups.

The authorities are also risking by attempting to violate people's private space and limit their freedoms, in particular, the right to anonymity. The initiative proposed by a group of MPs on the mandatory agreement with passport data for the provision of mobile services is rejected by 46% of respondents. Though the initiative was withdrawn, but the similar draft law might be considered in the future.

Ukrainian society does not accept the secrecy of the new authorities and non-transparency of their decision-making. Holding government sessions in ‘behind-the-scene’ non-broadcast format was a clear mistake: 67% of respondents believe government powers must be open and media should have access to the information. Weakness and lack of transparency in government communication with the society increase the abovementioned risks.

Thus, the president and the single-party parliamentary majority have the unprecedented in Ukrainian politics ‘window of opportunity’: support and trust of the majority of society and consolidation of control over all state institutions.

At the same time, the new government may face serious challenges, some of which might be their own fault. These foremost include the high level of public expectations regarding solving citizens' socio-economic problems, and, at the same time, the lack of resources for their fulfilment; controversial programme clauses that cannot be implemented without negative reaction of the party's supporters; attempts to ‘push through’ a number of ambiguous initiatives (according to the public opinion) in the closed-off format; attempts to slow down or significantly revise previous reforms, including those implemented with financial support of Ukraine's international partners; blatant upholding of interests of certain oligarch groups despite their potential harm to national interests, etc.

What are the most likely options? The new authorities will keep implementing systemic reforms based on the already created foundation or they will start implementing risky political projects with neither discussing nor informing the society. Which option will be chosen by the government still enjoying the ‘warm bath’ of public approval? It is worth noting that public confidence may tumble, and this process might have already started…

For more information, see: Yarema V. Role of Populist Parties in European Party Systems (ed. by Yu. Yakymenko). — Transformation of Party System: Ukraine's Experience in the European Context, Razumkov Centre, 2017, p.383–403.

  1. For more information, see results of expert survey in "Reform Priorities, Assessment of Actions of the New Government, Opposition: Expert Survey" in this publication.
  2. For instance, adoption of the Law on withdrawing state funding from political parties that got over 2% of votes by the party lists in the parliamentary election but failed to cross the electoral threshold.
  3. An attempt to remove V. Klychko from his position as the Mayor of Kyiv city and adopt new legislation regarding the capital.

Prezentation

Yuriy Yakymenko

Deputy Director General, Director, Political and Legal Programmes


Born in 1967 in Cherkasy.

Education:

National Taras Shevchenko University of Kyiv, Faculty of Philosophy (1991);

University of Manchester (GB), Department of Government, post-graduate course in Political Theory, MA (Econ) (1994);

National Academy of Sciences Institute of Philosophy, post-graduate course in Social Philosophy (1995). The author of about 200 publications.

Ph.D. in Political Science (2013). The author of about 40 research papers and more than 200 publications in media.

Employment:

1991–1995 — Expert in Public Relations of the Ukrainian Union of Afghan War Veterans;

1995-2002 — Senior Consultant, Chief Consultant, Head of Division, Deputy Head of the Main Department of Domestic Policy of the Administration of the President of Ukraine;

Most recent position at state service — Deputy Head of the Department for Analysis and Prognosis of Home Policy of the Administration of the President of Ukraine. State servant of the 4th rank;

Since April 2002 — Razumkov Centre Leading Expert, Political and Legal Programmes;

Since May 2005 — Director of Political and Legal Programmes;

Since November 2011 — Deputy Director General, Director of Political and Legal Programmes.

(044) 201-11-92

yuri@razumkov.org.ua

yuri.yakimenko