The weight of Zelensky’s second-round win conceals a weak political position. His fragile popularity, a likely standoff with parliament, and conflicts between pressure groups behind him suggest that he could become a lame duck, leading to increased political instability in the medium term. Uncertainty around Zelensky’s policy platform, particularly with regard to structural reforms and the fight against corruption, has been largely priced in by the markets in the weeks between the first and second rounds. However, only the October parliamentary election will fully reveal the president-elect’s policy positions and mandate strength. The likelihood of Russian moves to test the new president adds to the uncertainty, even as Ukraine is highly likely to remain pro-Western.
An analysis by András Radnóti, Sastre Consulting
In the second round of the presidential election, held on 21 April, 73% of voters supported Zelensky, while 25% voted for the country’s president since 2014, Petro Poroshenko. Zelensky, a comic actor and television producer, had shot to fame in TV show Servant of the People, in which he plays a teacher who becomes president of Ukraine.
Zelensky’s popularity is fragile
Most of those who cast their ballot for Zelensky did so as a protest vote against Poroshenko. The same anti-establishment sentiment was an important driver of the EuroMaidan protests that led to the ousting of Poroshenko’s predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, in 2014. Under Poroshenko, however, voters have seen their hopes betrayed by the president’s failure to deliver tangible results in the fight against pervasive administrative corruption or curtail the influence powerful business interests can exert on political decisions.
A popularity slump may follow Zelensky’s entry into post, if divisive decisions fragment the broadchurch coalition of voters swayed by his appeal as a newcomer and political outsider. By contrast, a failure to make any tangible moves in the first few months could tarnish hopes that change will be quick and easy.
Standoff with parliament brewing
Despite this risk, such inaction may be inevitable. Zelensky’s policy initiatives will likely encounter heavy opposition in the Verkhovna Rada (parliament), where his fledgling party, the Servant of the People, has no seats. The Petro Poroshenko Bloc, which remains the largest force in the Rada, will attempt to weaken the new president’s chances in
the October parliamentary election by obstructing his policies.
As such, symbolic moves are likely to dominate the first few months of Zelensky’s presidency. The president-elect has indicated a wish to move the presidential administration to the outskirts of Kyiv, the capital, cut staff numbers, and abolish the presidential convoy.
Although politically risky, a slow start to his presidency will allow Zelensky to focus on building a potent national party structure on the basis of his current social media-focused campaign staff. On-the-ground mobilisation will be decisive in the parliamentary election, and the president-elect will seek to ensure a majority for his party and other,
more established friendly forces (potentially including the Fatherland party, headed by former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko).
Nonetheless, current polling suggests that the fragmentation of Ukraine’s political scene will increase after the October election. A fragmented parliament is likely to yield an unstable coalition government prone to crises.
Russia certain to test new president
Ukraine’s commitment to its pro-Western strategic orientation is unlikely to be at risk under Zelensky’s presidency. Although he expressed certain controversial views early on in the campaign – suggesting in one instance to ‘meet Russia halfway’ – his platform is broadly pro-Western, calling for a referendum on joining the EU and NATO, and
stressing commitment to Ukrainian sovereignty over both Crimea (a peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014) and the Donbas (an area of eastern Ukraine where Russian proxies have waged a war against Ukraine since 2014).
Structural factors militate against a strategic shift
• Although Zelensky’s base is diverse, with most favouring NATO membership and a third, neutral status, pro-Russian views are now highly unpopular in Ukraine, including among Zelensky voters.
• His core supporters, from the young, urban, less-committed and anti-establishment electorate, hold strongly pro-Western views.
• Reformist figures in Zelensky’s team are strongly pro-Western. The circle headed by Kolomoisky also has no interest in rapprochement with Russia.
• Ukraine’s macro-financial stability depends on cooperation with the IMF and the EU. Even with significant help from Russia, a severe economic downturn – and likely a default on debts – would follow a turn away from the West.
Tensions with Russia are nonetheless set to continue.
Russia is likely to use its levers on Ukraine – its Donbas proxies, dominance of the Black Sea, and trade embargoes – to test the new administration’s resolve. While no ideological or economic incentives seem to militate for anything but a stern response, the administration’s ability to respond will depend on its cadre choices. Inexperience could lead to a weakened position at the negotiating table, potentially handing Russia more influence over the country.
Featured image: www.facebook.com/VolodymyrZelensky
Source: Sastre Consulting