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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Parliamentary Elections Put Ukraine at Political Crossroads

By Tatiana Vorozhko July 19, 2019

It was just months ago that a tidal wave of popular support carried a comedian who played the president on a popular sitcom to Ukraine's highest elected office, captivating a massive global audience in the process.

This weekend, however, voters return to the ballot box in a decidedly less attention-grabbing election. But the vote has substantial consequence for the war-wracked nation's territorial sovereignty and political direction. Ukraine's parliamentary-presidential form of government means the composition of its legislative body – the Verkhovna Rada – controls a range of issues from domestic and foreign policy to budgetary allocations and most ministerial appointments.

Although Ukraine's constitution allows President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to handpick ministers of foreign affairs and defense, the Rada suggests a candidate for prime minister. Once confirmed by the legislative body, the prime minister then is required to subject his own picks for other ministerial posts to further rounds of confirmation.

According to the latest polls, at least five parties are likely to pass the 5% threshold to win seats in the Rada.

Leading the pack is Zelenskiy's Servant of the People Party, with an estimated lock on anywhere from 41 to 52% of the electorate.

The group, a newly formed party with widely opposing views among its ranks, has little experience in lawmaking. Its vast popularity rests mostly on that of the president himself, rather than any prevailing ideology.

Opposition Platform-For Life is currently forecast to come in second with an estimated 10 to 12% of the vote. One of its leaders is Viktor Medvedchuk, former President Leonid Kuchma's one-time chief of staff and an associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin

Former President Petro Poroshenko's European Solidarity, which is likely to hang on with the third-largest percentage of the vote at 8%, has both speaker and a deputy speaker of the previous parliament at the top of its list, as well as leading Crimean Tatars and civil activists.

Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko's Fatherland is polling between 6 and 7%, while the Eurocentric Holos party, led by Ukrainian rock star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, is polling between 4 and 8%.

Polls also indicate that former Security Service Chief Ihor Smeshko's Strength and Honor party may have a slight chance of crossing the 5% threshold.

Wild cards

But electoral forecasting can be imprecise, especially in a country where the constitution dictates that half of all parliamentarians are to be elected from single-mandate districts, where local politics can outweigh party preference.

Some candidates have loose or no affiliation with any party, or they represent a party without any chance of breaking the 5% threshold required to gain any seats.

That's why some analysts, such as Melinda Haring of the Atlantic Council's UkraineAlert, say Zelenskiy's Servant of the People is unlikely to gain a majority.

"Even if they gain a majority, I think it would be politically foolish for them to go at it by themselves," she told VOA's Ukrainian Service. "They will probably want a second party to make sure they have the votes for those really tough votes that are going to be expected in the next five years."

Kateryna Smagliy of the Next Generation Leaders program at the John McCain Institute for International Leadership, said because Servant of the People is made up of differing viewpoints, "it'll be extremely difficult for Zelenskiy, who, at the moment, doesn't control his election campaign, to hold his majority together."

"He will certainly have to have a partner in parliament," she said.

Smagliy doesn't foresee Zelenskiy's party forming a majority with Medvedchuk's bloc. Such a pairing would trigger public outcry, she says.

"I believe Zelenskiy, who is afraid of the street protests, who doesn't yet know how to deal with street protests, would strongly discourage this scenario," she told VOA, adding that the president is also unlikely to forge an alliance with his former rival, Poroshenko, despite the fact that Zelenskiy has continued most of his predecessor's policies.

Instead, Smagliy anticipates two likely coalition partners: Tymoshenko's Fatherland and Vakarchuk's Holos.

A Holos alliance would politically benefit Zelenskiy, she said, because "it will demonstrate that he's going with new faces, new ideas, and the party, which at least claims to be ideological, wants to fight corruption and stand strongly with Ukraine's pro-European choice."

But as Haring points out, Zelenskiy, a comedy star, may see a personal challenge in partnering with Vakarchuk, one of the most accomplished musicians in modern Ukraine. That leaves only Smeshko's Strength and Honor party, should it break the 5% threshold, as an alternative.

Ukrainian political analyst Olesya Yakhno sees a range of possibilities, depending on which voices emerge at the forefront of Zelenskiy's Servant of the People party.

If Servant of the People is guided by a new voices mantra – many of its members are engaging politics for the first time – it's most likely to partner with Holos or both Holos and European Solidarity.

"If ideology is secondary and they aim for control of all branches of power, they would prefer a one-party majority and, if that is not possible, an alliance with [Tymoshenko's] Fatherland," said Yakhno, who doesn't rule out prospects for a coalition with Medvedchuk's party, which would signal a willingness by Zelenskiy's party to move slowly toward Russia's orbit of influence.

One-party rule 'risk'

While broad electoral success for Zelenskiy's party will allow him to consolidate power and expedite social and economic reforms, Yakhno said recent history is testament to the inherent risks of single-party rule.

"We already had a precedent when one party, the Party of Regions during Victor Yanukovych's time, controlled all branches of power," which culminated in the Euromaidan Revolution of 2014, she said.

Although unlikely to join in a ruling coalition, Smagliy, of the McCain Institute, said the pro-Russian Opposition Platform-For Life could hold enough political sway to hinder Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic integration.

Garnering the second-largest chunk of votes, she said, would "send a signal globally."

"Russia will be able to use this in the international talks, saying, 'Look, the party that stands for stronger and closer … ties with Russia came second in this election," said Smagliy, adding that the group would also be able to obstruct the legislative process, "using all sorts of conflicts, provocations and unnecessary infighting."

Polls open on Sunday morning.

This story originated in VOA's Ukrainian Service.

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