Nearly three in four voters just made Volodymyr Zelenskiy the next president of Ukraine. So what’s next?
Since declaring independence in 1991, Ukraine has elected six presidents. This weekend, voters chose their most recent leader: actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Once taking office, he will have to figure out how to cooperate with Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, where he has neither a majority nor his own faction. His team is reportedly considering the dissolution of the parliament, but this would be very difficult, and disagreements about the Rada could damage Zelenskiy’s early popularity.
With 99.72 percent of all second-round ballots counted, the actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy has defeated incumbent President Petro Poroshenko with 73.22 percent of the votes — the largest victory margin in Ukraine’s history as an independent nation. In terms of absolute numbers, however, Zelenskiy received just 13.5 million votes — fewer than any of his predecessors, except Poroshenko in 2014 (who got 9.8 million, but won in the first round) and Viktor Yanukovych in 2010 (who received 12.4 million votes). The only region Poroshenko won this weekend was Lviv (in the first round, he’d also won in the Ternopil region). Additionally, it's important to remember that neither Crimea nor the two separatists “republics” in the Donbas participated in Ukraine’s last two presidential elections. Roughly 6 million people live in these areas.
After the first election results were reported on Sunday, Zelenskiy gave a press conference at his campaign headquarters, briefly outlining his early plans in office. Specifically, he vowed “to do everything” to bring home the Ukrainian sailors who were captured by Russia’s Coast Guard when trying to cross the Kerch Strait in November 2018. The president-elect said freeing all the country’s prisoners of war is “priority number one” for his team.
Asked about resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Zelenskiy said he would act “in any case in the Normandy format” (negotiating with Germany, Russia, and France) and continue the Minsk peace process. During his presidential campaign, however, Zelenskiy said he planned to recruit the United States and Great Britain for diplomatic efforts in the Donbas.
At the same time, Ukraine’s new president-elect pledged to wage a “very powerful information war,” and he asked journalists to help him in the effort. Zelenskiy said his team has developed a “detailed action plan,” explaining that it’s an agenda too broad to discuss in a single speech. During his presidential campaign, he talked about creating a “Russian-language media portal that will be broadcast across all Europe” and convey a Ukrainian perspective on current events to people living in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic. Zelenskiy also said he would be making personnel changes to Ukraine’s negotiators, but he didn’t name anyone specifically.
Before the second round of voting, there were reports that Zelenskiy plans to remove Viktor Medvedchuk from the diplomatic process. Medvedchuk has formally represented Ukraine and mediated humanitarian issues in talks on the Donbas, and he’s widely considered to be a figure with close ties to the Russian authorities, especially Vladimir Putin. Medvedchuk’s current status is unclear: there were reports in December 2018 that he no longer participates in any negotiations, but Poroshenko also talked during his campaign about removing him from the diplomatic process.
The president-elect said he will hold a separate press conference about other major personnel appointments, but he did announce that he plans to remove Attorney General Yuriy Lutsenko, who before Sunday’s vote called Zelenskiy’s anti-corruption platform “dilettantism and populism.” The fight against corruption, incidentally, was one of the main themes of Zelenskiy’s campaign.
Zelenskiy also said he plans to reduce the presidential administration’s staff and move the presidential residence from the center of Kyiv, to reduce the road traffic caused by his motorcade.
Zelenskiy’s team is talking about dissolving the parliament. Legally, this would be very difficult to do.
Ukraine is a parliamentary-presidential republic, and the president’s powers are far narrower than in Russia. For example, firing Lutsenko and many other top government officials requires the approval of the Verkhovna Rada, where Zelenskiy has no representation. To make matters worse for the president-elect, Lutsenko formerly led the Petro Poroshenko Bloc “Solidarity,” which controls the most seats in the current parliament.
Three days before the second-round vote, Zelenskiy revealed the names of people he would bring into his administration. Some of these individuals have public-service experience, but in secondary roles. The others are university professors and scholars, mainly lawyers. Each of these men and women will have to manage some element of Zelenskiy’s policy agenda, but it’s still unknown if he will try to work with the parliament to get them ministerial positions or appoint them directly to his administration on the National Security and Defense Council. The only former government minister on Zelenskiy’s team is Oleksandr Danylyuk, who served as finance minister under Ukraine’s current prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman. (Danylyuk ultimately stepped down over disagreements with Groysman.)
In the coming months, cooperation with the Rada will be Zelenskiy’s main agenda, so long as Ukraine’s economy holds and violence in the Donbas doesn’t escalate. In late October, the country will hold its next parliamentary elections. During the presidential race, some in the Zelenskiy camp actively discussed the early dissolution of the parliament, but Ukraine’s Constitution doesn’t allow presidents to dissolve the Rada within six months of new elections. By the time Zelenskiy takes office, the elections will be too soon to dissolve the parliament.
During the presidential election, Ukrainian political experts discussed a so-called “secret plan” by Zelenskiy, where 150 Rada deputies would supposedly resign, vacating a third of the parliament’s seats, stripping the Rada of its “constitutional capacity.” This scheme was already implemented once in 2007, but Zelenskiy would encounter the same legal obstacle he faces otherwise: even in this case the president is supposed to be the one to dissolve the parliament, and Zelenskiy technically won’t have this power before the October elections.
Snap parliamentary elections, moreover, wouldn’t guarantee Zelenskiy a majority in the Rada. According to recent polls, just 26 percent of voters say they’d support his political party “Servant of the People” (named after the satirical TV series starring Zelenskiy as a high school teacher elected president of Ukraine) — too little for Zelenskiy to form a government independently. On the other hand, if Petro Poroshenko’s presidency is any indication, Zelenskiy’s position in parliament could be even worse, six months from now: in 2014, Poroshenko’s bloc led all the polls for several months, but it finished second when the election was done.
In the coming days, the Rada might adopt a new law about Ukraine’s official state language, which supporters say will raise the dominance of Ukrainian on the country’s national television networks to “at least 90 percent” and boost “Ukrainian-language education.” During his press conference, Zelenskiy said he will defend the Ukrainian language and effectively endorsed the legislation, which could immediately damage his support in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking regions.
Zelenskiy will most likely need to work with former rivals Petro Poroshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, or Ukraine’s “pro-Russian” faction
For now, members of Zelenskiy’s team say the president-elect expects the parliament to support his initiatives, given his unprecedented electoral victory against Poroshenko. “The public is waiting on all his initiatives,” Oleksandr Danylyuk told reporters on Sunday. “I'd like to see this Rada that’s going to throw a wrench into all this. I think there are plenty of decent deputies in the Rada who understand times have changed, and now we need to work in the country’s interests.”
In the medium-term, however, Zelenskiy will likely need to build bridges to one of Ukraine’s more powerful political forces, whether it’s the “Opposition Platform — For Life” (which critics say is “pro-Russian”), Yulia Tymoshenko’s All-Ukrainian Union “Batkivshchyna,” or even Petro Poroshenko’s own bloc. In his concession speech, Poroshenko vowed not to leave politics. Zelenskiy says he’s prepared to consider the former president for a government position, “if the public wishes.”
Zelenskiy’s immediate plans are nevertheless to reduce, not expand, the president’s powers. Danylyuk says the new administration will submit legislation to the Rada that would make impeachment easier (a process that’s still poorly codified in Ukraine).
Zelenskiy’s inauguration will take place a month after his final election results are published officially. According to the Ukrainian news media, the ceremony will occur no later than June 3.
Translation by Kevin Rothrock