Opinion: The Risks Of Radical Renewal In Ukraine

KYIV, Ukraine -- Voters across the country took another leap of faith on Sunday, handing yet more power to their new and untested leader.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine speaking to the media on Sunday.

In April, the former comedian Volodymyr Zelensky went from playing an accidental president on television to unexpectedly becoming the country’s real-life president.

In this weekend’s parliamentary elections, he led his party to another stunning victory.

In late May, hoping to capitalize on his popularity, Mr. Zelensky dissolved Parliament, which was still largely dominated by the camp of the previous president, Petro O. Poroshenko, and called for early elections.

On Sunday, voters gave him the mandate he was asking for.

With more than 96 percent of ballots counted as of Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Zelensky’s party, Sluha Narodu (“Servant of the People”) — named after the TV series in which he starred — appears to have won about 43 percent of the popular vote and more than 250 of the 424 seats that were contested.

Sluha Narodu is the first party to secure an outright parliamentary majority since Ukraine became independent in 1991.

The leading pro-Russia party came in second, and the party of former Prime Minister Yulia V. Tymoshenko third. (The bloc headed by Mr. Poroshenko ranked fourth.)

The newbie party Holos (“Voice”), which is led by a rock star and denounces the influence of oligarchs and established elites, is projected to win 20 seats; it is thought to be a natural ally of Mr. Zelensky’s.

An estimated 70 percent of members-elect are newcomers.

Do not try to explain these electrifying results by looking at Mr. Zelensky’s agenda.

Neither he nor his party have a clearly defined platform; their campaign railed against corruption generally without saying how to combat it and, in essence, advocated change for the sake of change. 

Mr. Zelensky’s casual charm and social-media savvy have won him points over the curmudgeonly ways of career politicians.

But to really understand this year’s elections, one must look at what Ukraine has gone through since the last ones five years ago.

In early 2014, tens of thousands of Ukrainians hit the streets of Kyiv to denounce pervasive corruption and the growing authoritarianism of a government too cozy with Russia.

After the protest movement turned into a revolution and President Viktor Yanukovych left office and fled, contagious optimism spread across Ukraine.

Protesters in the capital wanted the country to move closer to the European Union.

But many Ukrainians elsewhere worried that the new central authorities would neglect the specific needs and identities of their regions; some seemed to think that Russia would be a better caretaker.

Soon enough, Russia had annexed the Crimean peninsula, and Russia-backed separatists started trying to carve out statelets in eastern Ukraine.

That, in turn, kicked off a new wave of patriotism elsewhere: Politicians left, right and center were busy burnishing their credentials as defenders against Russian aggression.

Mr. Poroshenko was elected president, in May, at an extraordinarily tense moment.

He then chose to tap the revolution’s more nationalist chords.

Major issues like corruption or improving standards of living became peripheral to Mr. Poroshenko’s continued bid to cast himself as a strong leader and Ukraine’s guardian.

Late last year he declared a 30-day period of martial law after Russian forces fired on Ukrainian ships off the coast of Crimea.

For all this, he was punished at the ballot box, in April and again this weekend.

Mr. Poroshenko might have thought that as the torchbearer of the 2014 revolution, he couldn’t possibly lose the country’s support.

Instead, he found out that Ukrainians will not long suffer politicians who exploit genuine grievances and hijack grass-roots movements for their own political advancement.

Ukrainians seem to know only too well what politicians usually stand for.

In contrast, the vagueness of Mr. Zelensky’s proposals allows voters of various persuasions to project their hopes and ambitions onto him.

Yet he inherits an electorate deeply skeptical of all things political.

According to polls conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology in 2017 and 2018, Parliament is the institution that Ukrainians trust the least — less so even than the Russian media, a propaganda machine engaged in an information war against Ukraine.

Some people have also challenged Mr. Zelensky’s claim that he is free of untoward influence, pointing out that his comedy show was broadcast on a TV station owned by a billionaire oligarch who has been accused of financial fraud.

The year 2014 was a year of revolution; 2019 is a year of radical renewal, less violent but no less sweeping.

The expectations — and the risks — today are almost as great as they were back then.

Source: The New York Times