Zelensky’s party wins in a landslide in Ukraine parliamentary election

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky cheering the exit polls Sunday evening.
Tuesday, July 23, 2019

In April, Volodymyr Zelensky, a 41-year-old actor and comedian with no previous political experience, was elected president of Ukraine in a landslide in the second-round run-off against the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko. On Sunday, Ukraine went to the polls in parliamentary elections and Servant of the People, the party created last year by Zelensky’s production company which produced a television comedy with the same name in which he played a high school history teacher who, after a rant about corruption secretly videotaped by his students goes viral, becomes president, won in another landslide. For the first time since Ukraine became independent in 1991, one party will hold a majority of the seats in the Verkhovna Rada.

There are 450 seats in the parliament. 225 are allocated proportionally among the parties that receive more than 5 per cent of the national vote for a party list and 225 are filled on a first-past the-post basis in single-member constituencies. However, 26 of the 225 single-member seats – those in Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, and in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine that has been controlled since 2014 by pro-Russian separatists – are vacant. So the Rada now consists of 225 seats distributed among the parties receiving more than 5 per cent of the national vote and 199 single-member seats, resulting in a total of 424 seats. Zelensky’s party won 129 of the 199 single-member seats and, with 43.1 per cent of the vote compared to a total of 35.1 per cent of the vote won by the other four parties that received more than five per cent of the party list vote,  won 124 of the 225 party-list seats, giving Servant of the People a total of 253 of the 424 seats in the Rada.

The election was originally scheduled to take place in October, but Zelensky, no doubt aware of the likely coattails effect of his presidential victory – he won 73.2 per cent of the vote in the second round – dissolved the Rada in his inauguration address and moved up the date of the election. And although Sunday’s vote for Servant of the People fell far short of Zelensky’s in the second round of the presidential election, in part, perhaps, because substantially fewer voters turned out on Sunday than voted in the second round of the presidential election – 50 per cent compared to 62 per cent in the second round – the presidential election clearly transformed the country’s party system. Indeed, three of the five parties that obtained more than five per cent of the national vote on Sunday were new ones. In addition to Servant of the People, Opposition Platform-For Life, led by Viktor Medvedchuk, a lawyer and oligarch who heads the pro-Russia Ukraine Choice NGO and For Life Party, is opposed to Ukraine’s ties to the EU and its possible membership in NATO, and is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin (who is his daughter’s godfather), got 13 per cent of the vote and 44 seats, drawing largely on Russian speakers and those of Russian heritage in eastern Ukraine, and Golos (Voice), a liberal pro-European party led by Svyatoslav Vakarchok, the lead vocalist in one of Ukraine’s most popular rock groups (and a 2015 Yale World Fellow), got 5.8 per cent of the vote and 20 seats. There were only two parties that were not new to this election and passed the five per cent barrier – Fatherland, headed by former prime minister and presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko, which won 5.7 per cent of the vote and 19 seats in 2014, won 8.2 per cent of the vote and 25 seats on Sunday. And European Solidarity, the successor to the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, which won 21.8 per cent of the vote and 132 seats in 2014, won 8.1 per cent and 25 seats on Sunday.   

The question now, of course, is what Zelensky will do with the substantial majority – nearly 60 per cent of the seats – Servant of the People will have in the Rada. He made it clear Sunday evening, as he had in the presidential campaign, that he is committed to eliminating the corruption that has infested government at all levels in Ukraine, ending the war that has gone on for more than five years in eastern Ukraine and ending the control of the pro-Russian separatists over much of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions in the east, restoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine (minus Crimea, of course), improving relations with Putin and Russia, bringing home all of the Ukrainian troops and sailors now held as prisoners by Russia, and, as if that were not enough, generating and sustaining a rate of economic growth in the years ahead sufficient to alleviate the widespread poverty, improve the standard of living of most Ukrainians, and reduce the high degree of economic inequality epitomized by the wealth and continued political influence of the oligarchs – including his friend and benefactor, Igor Kolomoisky, the former co-owner of PrivatBank, the country’s largest until it was nationalized in the wake of allegations of fraud, and the owner of the television channel that broadcast the program that made him famous.

The question, in short, is whether Zelensky and his party will do what they claim they will do – serve the people. We’ll see.

David R. Cameron is a professor of political science and the director of the MacMillan Center’s Program in European Union Studies.