Who Will Be Zelensky’s Coalition Allies at the New Rada?

The first few weeks after Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky took office were marked not only by new appointments, international meetings and public statements. It was practically the first time in history that an inauguration ceremony was used to commence a new election campaign. 

Zelensky dissolved the Verkhovna Rada even as he was making his inaugural speech, thus placing the political situation in Ukraine on the election-to-election footing. The country was not allowed even a few months’ respite (under the Constitution, new parliamentary elections were to be held in the fall anyway). 

This decision was motivated by several reasons, one of which Vladimir Zelensky announced in public: in his opinion, people have no faith in the current parliament and therefore it needs an immediate reset. And this is true, as is the fact that the new president needs a team of his own to run the country effectively, whereas under the presidential-parliamentary system in Ukraine the Verkhovna Rada has tremendous powers, including with regard to appointing ministers and supervision. This is why the president will find it extremely difficult to pursue his policies, particularly if they are aimed at bringing about serious changes, unless he controls a stable majority in parliament. (If we are to believe Zelensky’s election promises, change is just around the corner.) 

But there is yet another quite obvious reason that has led to the Rada’s dissolution. I am referring to Vladimir Zelensky’s decision to hold new elections at the peak of his own popularity without waiting six months, when it might decline in the wake of his practical moves. Europe’s recent political history offers a conspicuous example of this kind. In 2017, when the last cycle of national elections took place in France, President elect Emmanuel Macron (like Zelensky, an obscure figure at the start of the election campaign) used his newly acquired popularity to achieve almost as convincing a success for his new and unknown party at the subsequent parliamentary elections as he did for himself. This means that Zelensky’s priority today is to mirror Macron’s achievements.

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In this context, Vladimir Zelensky’s electoral base is of key importance. The 73 percent support he won in the second round of elections is unprecedented in modern Ukraine with its fragmented public preferences. However, this unanimous voter response to Zelensky in the whole range of diverse regions may be short-lived and hold out no promise of a double success identical to that of Macron. After all, it is clear that for all the heterogeneity of the French society, it is by far not as fragmented as the public in Ukraine. Neither was it exposed to a parallel civil war. 

Therefore, Zelensky’s key (and far from easy) task for the new election campaign is to rivet the allegiance of as much of his motley electorate as he possibly can. Many campaign managers say that one way to achieve this is to avoid radical moves that might frighten off supporters with opposite political preferences. But the best option for him is to do nothing at all, limiting himself to glamorous PR stunts (of which Zelensky is a past master). 

This strategy has a good leg to stand on. But the problem is that a two-month lull in activity in a war-torn country may prove a huge disadvantage that will overturn all campaign calculations. In a situation where western Ukraine is resolutely in favor of the war, whereas eastern Ukraine is as resolutely against it and for restoring civic accord with the people of Donbass, these two months of doing nothing either way can seriously erode Zelensky’s electoral base (primarily in eastern Ukraine, because the shelling of Donbass continues unabated). 

Today, sociologists say that Zelensky’s party, Servant of the People, enjoys 40-45 percent popularity ratings. This is also huge for Ukraine but is way below Zelensky’s own percent. Besides, let us not forget that half the Rada deputies are elected in majority constituencies with their strong lobbies and local political preferences. Therefore, even if Servant of the People’s slate wins over 50 percent of the vote, this does not necessarily mean that the party will have over 50 percent of the seats in parliament. 

More likely than not, Zelensky will not have a pocket majority in the new Rada and will have to form a coalition to establish stable links between the president and the parliament (and this was why the Rada was dissolved in the first place). Thus, a coalition partner is emerging as a factor of key importance.

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Sociologically, the success of Zelensky in the first round fits well with the social fatigue of the “old elites” observed in many other European countries and the disappointment of citizens in the current political system. Therefore, any bright new face and the use of populist mechanisms in a pre-election strategy leads to the outsider, initially, quickly gaining support and achieving success. This approach worked well in Ukraine.

Clearly, former President Petro Poroshenko and his party (7-10 percent of the votes, according to sociological surveys) are unfit for this role because his personal differences with Zelensky are too vast and too fresh even for Ukraine’s super-flexible political culture that is tolerant of most unexpected coalitions. Besides, the voting in the second round of the Ukrainian elections was not so much in favor of Zelensky as against Poroshenko, a circumstance that makes it extremely difficult to see them together, at least at the initial stage. Poroshenko’s party will most likely lead the opposition to Zelensky in the new Rada, primarily in the media space. 

Hence yet another important conclusion: Zelensky’s coalition partner must be almost a priori adversary to Poroshenko. Western Ukraine’s radical nationalist forces can hardly meet this criterion. According to sociological surveys, they are likely to gain few votes and will make it to the Rada based on returns in majority constituencies, if at all. Ideologically they are also in the same boat as Poroshenko and will most likely join him in opposition to Zelensky. 

Ever since the presidential campaign, Yulia Tymoshenko (8-10 percent of the votes, according to sociological surveys) has been described as a “natural” partner of Zelensky’s and the main candidate for prime minister. This was explained by the notorious influence of oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, who allegedly was supporting both politicians. His return from emigration and the appointment of a number of his allies to important positions gives additional weight to this assumption. If this is the case, we will see a continuation of the old oligarchic game in Ukrainian politics. 

Another option is a coalition with the East. Sociological surveys are giving the For Life Opposition Platform that represents the interests of eastern Ukraine 10 percent of the vote. It is being rumored that the Opposition Block, which split before the presidential elections, may reunite. Yet another force hailing from eastern and southern Ukraine – the Trust Deeds party led by Kharkov Mayor Gennady Kernes and Odessa Mayor Gennady Trukhanov – is being hyped. Of course, apprehensions are being aired in public that this is just a spin-off project aimed at engineering a new split in the opposition and pro-Russia electorate, but the two mayors are truly influential figures in their respective cities and can bring to parliament their allies elected in the majority constituencies established in these major urban centers. 

In any event, no matter who (Yury Boiko, or Gennady Kernes, or both) President Zelensky chose for his coalition partner, this coalition would be a crucial step towards restoring peace and civic accord in Donbass (it will be recalled that this was the key point in Zelensky’s election campaign). This coalition would ensure his equidistance from the oligarchs (if only because the opposition in the East is supported by other Ukrainian oligarchs, Dmitry Firtash or Renat Akhmetov, rather than Igor Kolomoisky). The coalition with the East, therefore, will be a test for whether Kolomoisky’s “oligarchic monopoly” on the new president is real or not. Besides, any partner from the East, as distinct from Yulia Tymoshenko, is unlikely to demand for himself the prime ministerial position and will be, for this reason, more convenient for Zelensky in the managerial sense. 

Finally, a third option could be called a “coalition of performers.” According to surveys, Okean Elzy band leader Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, who has joined the election race, can hope for about 5 percent of the vote. Vakarchuk can clearly be called the main loser in the context of the past presidential campaign because it was his withdrawal from the race that cleared the ground for Vladimir Zelensky to fill the highly popular niche of a new force unrelated to the old elites and ultimately win a triumphal victory. It is also clear that Vakarchuk has the right to picture himself in his boots. But anyway his jealousy and bitterness seems less than in the case of Poroshenko vs. Zelensky. So, the electoral demand for fresh blood infusions could yet bring the two politicians together. 

Given that Vakarchuk speaks for national liberals, their putative alliance could be called Zelensky’s coalition with western Ukraine, this despite the fact that Vakarchuk has been noticed imitating Zelensky’s electoral tactics and uttering things like “we must hear Donbass,” “our own Ukrainians live there,” and so on. But it is clear that in his case this is even more of a spin-off trick than anything done by Zelensky or on his behalf. 

Therefore, the main civic question that politicians and voters should ask Zelensky is who will be his coalition partner in the new Rada. However, we can well understand the PR thrust of his likely reply: No one, we will gain 50 percent of the vote on our own. So, let us watch the developments.

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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.