2019 is a super-electoral year for Ukraine. A country that survived the tragic change of regime and annexation of Crimea in 2014 and lived through a war in Donbass is expected to re-elect its president in the spring and its parliament in the fall 2019.
Yet a year ago, no one would have expected an outsider to win the sympathies of Ukrainians. It looked as if post-Euromaidan ruling elites would control the centers of power indefinitely.
However, the presidential campaign turned out to be a shock for politicians and experts: Ukrainian voters chose Volodymyr Zelensky, a showman with no experience in public administration, to run the country for next five years. Unlike his adversaries, Zelensky was seen by the voters as the right person to respond to war, corruption and economic hardships. Zelensky won 73% of the vote and prevailed in 24 out of 25 regions – an unprecedented result in a country that has long had an East-West electoral divide. This landslide victory was dubbed by some an “electoral Maidan,” a radical attempt at regime change by constitutional means.
The shock soon intensified as post-Euromaidan elites – whose candidate, the incumbent Petro Poroshenko got 24% of votes in the second round of elections – began to sabotage the president-elect. In response, on his (long postponed) inauguration day, President Zelensky announced early parliamentary elections.
This was tantamount to a new group of elites declaring war on the ones that came to power in 2014 and those who ruled before Euromaidan. Thus, a new political cleavage emerged in April – May 2019.
This new group of elites – young, self-made businessmen and civic activists-is still in the formation stage. Its leader is Zelensky, who believes in a “new generation” of politicians and launched an experiment by creating a new executive branch out of people with no previous record in public service or in politics. Zelensky and his administration run a party where the main selection criterion is non-participation in politics before 2019. Zelensky’s party “Servant to the People” has generated a list that reflects this principle. And it looks like a large number of Ukrainians agree with this idea. According to a recent poll, “Servant to the People” enjoys the support of about 47% of voters.
As the Ukrainian parliament is elected using a mixed voting system, with half the seats (225) assigned under party lists and the other half through elections in single-member constituencies, it is also important for President Zelensky to have the same proportion of MPs from the latter group as well. According to my observations, I expect single-mandate candidates to get 15-20% of the vote if they are nominated by the presidential party. This would allow the new elites to create a power structure under the control of presidency, while having a majority in the Parliament and Cabinet.
These new elites also aim to replace earlier elites in much the same way as their predecessors did in 2014: using lustration – the purging of perpetrators of crimes committed under an earlier regime – to keep other groups away from power. On July 12, President Zelensky submitted a draft law to the Parliament that envisages extending lustration to senior officials who have held posts since February 23, 2014. The law received some criticism, not only from former President Poroshenko, who labelled the proposal as "Russian revanchism", but also from the G7 countries' ambassadors to Ukraine, who argued that the current situation cannot compare to the aftermath of Euromaidan.
The second group consists of politicians who came to power in the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2014. Their leaders include former President Poroshenko, former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Minister of the Interior Arsen Avakov, and other politicians who played a crucial role in the events of 2014-19, including Yulia Tymoshenko, Oleg Lyashko, and Anatolii Hrytsenko. According to a recent poll, their electoral support is negligible today. Poroshenko’s party ‘European Solidarity’ (with 8.2% of support) and Tymoshenko’s ‘Batkivshchyna’ (6.4%) are still likely to be represented in Parliament. The others will most probably stay outside of the Rada.
Nevertheless, these groups control the upper-middle management of state bodies, law enforcement agencies, and most state-owned corporations. The struggle between these two groups of elites is visible in every ministry and every oblast of Ukraine today.
There is also a political party that tries to have a foot in the both camps. Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, a rock star, former MP elected after the Orange Revolution of 2005-6, and a re-emerging politician, has founded a party called "Holos’" (Voice), which combines Zelenskyy’s logic of "new faces" and the national-conservative ideology of Poroshenko. This party currently enjoys 6.6% of support. It has a chance to enter the Rada and be a minor partner in the pro-Zelenskyy coalition.
The third group in the emerging Ukrainian political cleavage comprises the power elites that ruled before Euromaidan and survived after 2014 in the form of Opposition Block. Today this Block has split into several factions fighting with each other for votes in south-eastern Ukraine. The faction that has a chance to win seats in the Rada is the Opposition Platform "For Life", which currently polls at 11.6%.
The Platform is led by the duo of Yurii Boiko and Victor Medvedchuk. These politicians are openly pro-Russian, and often visit Moscow during their campaigns. They were an integral part of the political regime in 2014-19, and are now looking for new opportunities in Ukraine’s power games.
These three groups of elites will define the future of Ukraine in the next political cycle. Their battle for the Rada will take place very soon, on July 21. And the battle will most likely be continued in the early local elections – something that would make 2019 a genuinely unique super-electoral year in the history of contemporary Ukraine. All three should address the three main issues that Ukrainians clearly identified during all these campaigns: the resolution of the Donbass war; the reduction of corruption in the public sector; and ensuring that household incomes grow faster than spending.