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Ukraine election ignites hope for change under Volodymyr Zelenskiy

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Ukraine is a country that has experienced fresh beginnings before, notably in the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2014 EuroMaidan revolt. Neither of those revolts ended up bringing about lasting reforms. But Sunday’s parliamentary elections could break with that tradition.

Recently elected President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People party captured 43% of the votes and is projected to win a comfortable majority of the parliament’s seats, the first time that has happened in Ukraine. That gives Mr. Zelenskiy the ability to implement sweeping change – and the Ukrainian public is optimistic that he will.

“What we have seen following Zelenskiy’s election [three months ago] is a huge increase in optimism and expectations across the country,” says Ian Woodward, Ukraine co-director for the National Democratic Institute. “Zelenskiy is well liked all over the country, and he is seen as a person who can deliver. We have never seen that before.”

The NDI found that, for the first time, a desire for an end to the war in the east is tied with rising prices as the No. 1 concern of Ukrainians. The five-year-old war along with mutual Russia-Ukraine sanctions have inflicted terrible damage on Ukraine’s economy.

KIEV, Ukraine

It’s no exaggeration to suggest that Ukrainians woke up Monday morning to greet the dawn of a radically new political era.

For the first time in Ukraine’s turbulent post-Soviet history, the country’s voters have thrown enough support behind a single party to grant it a parliamentary majority that will now be capable of forming a government, choosing a prime minister, and backing the recently elected President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. He has pledged sweeping reforms, a new path to peace with Russia, and strong action to curb the country’s endemic corruption.

Mr. Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People party, which didn’t even exist a year ago, captured 43% of the votes and is projected to win 246 – a comfortable majority – of the unicameral Supreme Rada’s available 424 seats. Political parties that dominated the outgoing parliament, including those of former President Petro Poroshenko and ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, have been virtually marginalized with single-digit support. In second place with 13% is an unambiguously pro-Russian force, Opposition Bloc-Party of Life, which draws most of its support from the embattled east of Ukraine.

“What we have seen following Zelenskiy’s election [three months ago] is a huge increase in optimism and expectations across the country,” says Ian Woodward, Ukraine co-director for the National Democratic Institute (NDI), which recently published a comprehensive survey of Ukrainian public opinion.

“Before this, there was at least one pessimist for every optimist. Now it’s 3-to-1 for optimists. People have firm expectations that the new parliament will represent their interests better, and they believe that the president is actually listening to their concerns. This is a big change from the recent past,” he says.

Ukraine is a country that has experienced fresh beginnings before, notably in the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2014 EuroMaidan revolt, both of which led to changes of government and sweeping hopes for reforms. But neither Maidan-centric revolt engaged the more Russified populations of east and south Ukraine. And both broke down amid infighting among reformers, the stubborn persistence of official corruption at every level, and regional divisions which in 2014 erupted into Russian-backed separatist war in the east.

“Now we are seeing a convergence of views across the country,” says Mr. Woodward. “Zelenskiy is well liked all over the country, and he is seen as a person who can deliver. We have never seen that before.”

People in Kiev’s overcast streets Monday mostly validated those views.

“I support Zelenskiy because he is new and has nothing to do with our past politics,” says Ruslan Akimov, a middle-aged security guard. “In the past, our situation has deteriorated with every single new president who came to power. Poroshenko was the head of the state and now we see that he worked not so much for the sake of Ukraine but for his own pocket. Zelenskiy’s party is called Servant of the People. I hope they will live up to that.”

Oleh Okhrimenko, a university student, says: “Zelenskiy is new, he is young. He is now selecting his team and I think the majority in the Rada will help him. I want the minimum wage to be raised and I want roads to be better.  And I want the conflict in Donbass to be over.”

The NDI survey found that, for the first time, a desire for an end to the war in the east is tied with rising prices as the No. 1 concern of Ukrainians. The five-year-old war, along with mutual Russia-Ukraine sanctions, have inflicted terrible damage on Ukraine’s economy.

“Right now it’s critically important that there be no flare-up of military action in the east. Voters want peace,” says Vadim Karasyov, director of the independent Institute of Global Strategies in Kiev. “People want improved relations with Russia. To go on being at war with Russia is undermining Ukraine. But it’s easier said than done. What concessions would Russia accept? What would be acceptable to Ukrainians, especially in the west of the country? This is a huge challenge for Zelenskiy, and the clock is ticking on the perception that he is the man to deliver.”

Mr. Karasyov says that Mr. Zelenskiy needs to move fast to demonstrate that he can use his unprecedented mandate to deliver things the public wants. That might include some high-profile corruption cases, perhaps even against Mr. Poroshenko, the former president. Another step might be to go back to Ukraine’s main creditor, the International Monetary Fund, to get new funding and debt relief.

No essential changes in Ukraine’s foreign policy direction are to be expected, although the pro-Russian leaders of the Party of Life will be waiting in the wings with alternatives if Mr. Zelenskiy fails, says Mr. Karasyov.

Not everyone is happy. Alexander Chernenko, a former deputy in the outgoing Rada for Mr. Poroshenko’s party, warns that Mr. Zelenskiy has been handed all the tools to build an authoritarian regime in the image of Alexander Lukashenko, the dictator of next-door Belarus.

“Zelenskiy deployed high-quality populism, using all modern methods, and promised so many different things to different people that it will be impossible for him to fulfill it all,” he says. “His honeymoon won’t last. Right now, Zelenskiy is a young Lukashenko with a smartphone. He scolds people on TV, fires them on the air. He’s riding high. But let’s see what happens in a year.”



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