July 21, 2019
By Maria Tsvetkova and Pavel Polityuk
KIEV (Reuters) – Ukrainians voted in a snap parliamentary election on Sunday that is expected to strengthen President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s hold on power, handing the novice politician a broader mandate for driving change in a nation at war.
A TV comedian with no prior policymaking experience, Zelenskiy won a landslide victory in a presidential ballot in April, having cast himself as an everyman outsider who would tackle corruption and raise living standards in one of Europe’s poorest countries.
But since then the 41-year-old has had to deal with a cabinet and lawmakers who are mostly loyal to his predecessor Petro Poroshenko, a balance of power that Zelenskiy hopes Sunday’s election will swing in his favor.
His Servant of the People party, named after the televised comedy in which he played a fictional president, has consistently led opinion polls for the parliamentary vote, though it might fall short of a majority.
Zelenskiy has so far not publicly designated a prime minister or a preferred coalition partner, but on Sunday he appeared to rule out an alliance with parties that have previously held power.
Whoever wins the election will inherit a country at the center of a standoff between Moscow and the West following Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014 and its role in a separatist conflict in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine that has killed 13,000 people in the past five years.
The new government will also need to implement reforms agreed with international donors to secure billions of dollars of new loans to keep the economy stable.
SEEKING ECONOMIST AS PM
Four hours into the vote, by noon local time, there was a turnout of around 19%, the Central Election Commission said.
Zelenskiy, after casting his ballot in north Kiev, said he would decide on coalition options after results were known.
“(But) Honestly, we don’t see a coalition with anyone from the old leadership,” he said.
He wanted a professional economist as prime minister and said he was holding consultations with a possible candidate but did not name them. “I would like him to be an absolutely independent person, who has never been neither a prime minister nor a speaker or a leader of any faction.”
One Zelenskiy supporter, 40-year-old Kiev teacher Vitaly Solomakha, told Reuters TV he had cast his ballot for the Servant of the People party “in order to give a man who got 74 percent of (presidential) votes a chance to bring to life everything he promised.”
Other voters were unconvinced.
“Zelenskiy says we will fire all of those who are not professional. But I don’t see professional people (in his team). They are showmen and should perform on a stage,” said 63-year-old Poroshenko supporter Vladimir Lantukh. “There should be lawyers and economists in politics.”
Zelenskiy – who has promised to keep the country on a pro-Western course while securing peace in the Donbass region – announced the snap election in May, on the same day he was inaugurated as president.
Agnese Ortolani, of the Economist Intelligence Unit, said she expected him to win a broad mandate to push through his reforms.
“He is backed in this attempt by a majority of Ukrainians who view parliament as inherently corrupt and have given Mr Zelenskiy a mandate to ‘clean up’ the political class,” she said.
Beyond his everyman image, Zelenskiy has faced scrutiny over his business connections to one of Ukraine’s most powerful tycoons, Ihor Kolomoisky.
Kolomoisky has fought a protracted legal battle with the state over control of Ukraine’s largest lender, PrivatBank, which was nationalized against his wishes in 2016.
Zelenskiy insists he is not beholden to Kolomoisky and will not take his side. A rollback of PrivatBank’s nationalization would likely lead to foreign creditors freezing aid.
So far, Ukrainians appear willing to give Zelenskiy the benefit of the doubt.
Ahead of the election, surveys had shown the Russian-friendly Opposition Platform far behind the president’s party in second place.
Also in the running are the parties headed by Poroshenko and that of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The Voice party, fronted by rock star Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, is seen as a possible coalition ally for Zelenskiy.
Zelenskiy will seek a new aid-for-reforms program with the International Monetary Fund and has promised crowd-pleasing anti-corruption measures, such as stripping lawmakers of immunity from prosecution.
Often tie-less and speaking to voters through social media videos, Zelenskiy has carried his informal style from the campaign trail into the presidency.
A recent poll by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute asked voters which politicians they thought were interested in hearing their opinions.
Zelenskiy scored 49 percent, compared to eight percent for Poroshenko. Two-thirds of those surveyed thought Zelenskiy would make changes that mattered to them.
(Reporting by Matthias Williams, Maria Tsvetkova, Pavel Polityuk, Natalia Zinets; Margaryta Chornokondratenko and Natalia Lutsenko; Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by John Stonestreet)