Ukraine: The New President's Mandate for Change Faces a Stiff Resistance

4 MINS READApr 22, 2019 | 19:56 GMT
The Big Picture

Ukraine's presidential election produced a resounding victory for political outsider Volodymyr Zelenskiy. But in the short term, any push he makes to change the direction of Ukrainian policy will face major obstacles from both within and outside the country.

What Happened

With over 98 percent of the votes counted from the second round of the Ukrainian presidential election, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, best known as a TV comedian, has overwhelmingly won the post by capturing over 73 percent of the vote. Incumbent Petro Poroshenko has conceded defeat.

Why It Matters

Zelenskiy's landslide victory is an expression of public frustration over business as usual in Ukraine. The 2014 Euromaidan revolution raised expectations, providing a glimpse of the perceived change that many thought possible in the country. But reform efforts under Poroshenko produced mixed results. Reforms in the energy sector, for instance, led to higher utility costs, while wages have not kept up with inflation. Meanwhile, efforts to tackle corruption through judicial and legal reforms have largely stalled. Zelenskiy — who had no previous political experience and offered no clear policy prescriptions during his campaign — thus served as a protest candidate.

The Ukrainian parliament, currently led by the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, presents a significant limiter on the power of the presidency.

With Zelenskiy's victory now all but official, the question shifts to how he will reshape Ukrainian policy after he takes office. In the short term, he won't be able to do much. The Ukrainian parliament, currently led by the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, presents a significant limiter on the power of the presidency. Therefore, Zelenskiy — whose party currently has no parliamentary representation — will find it difficult to push through any significant policy changes at least until parliamentary elections in October, when he will have a chance to build his party's numbers. Any changes Zelenskiy wants to make must also take into account external influence, including a push by the West for policy continuity on economic reforms tied to the country's financial assistance program through the International Monetary Fund.

Beyond the immediate term, Zelenskiy could shift Ukraine's approach to key issues such as the conflict with Russia-backed separatists in Donbas. Indeed, he has called for a reset of the negotiation process over ending the war in Eastern Ukraine, but faces obstacles to that ambition. Ukraine's Western backers have pushed for a continuation of the Minsk process and Normandy format of negotiations, a step that Zelenskiy's representatives have confirmed a commitment to keeping, meaning the bid to find a resolution to the conflict will face the same constraints. 


Ending the frozen conflict in Eastern Ukraine will be easier said than done.

Russia, which has taken a cautious approach to Zelenskiy's victory, will also serve as a major roadblock to ending the conflict, considering Moscow's interest in undermining Ukraine's Western integration process regardless of who is president. Given that Zelenskiy supports broader integration with Western blocs such as the European Union and NATO (he has called for a referendum on Ukraine's NATO membership as a means to clarify public consensus on the issue), any difference in foreign policy between Zelenskiy and Poroshenko is likely to be tactical, rather than strategic, in nature.

There could, however, be more potential for domestic change, as the Ukrainian public will hold Zelenskiy accountable to his pledge to do more to tackle corruption. But this, too, is complicated by his alleged ties to influential oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, as well as efforts by vested interests within the political and economic establishment to resist anti-corruption reforms. The extent of the resistance that Zelenskiy will face in changing Ukrainian policy will become clearer in the weeks ahead as he makes key Cabinet and personnel appointments and pushes to increase his party's representation in parliament.

What's Next?

Ukraine is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections on Oct. 27. The Petro Poroshenko Bloc and the Popular Front currently make up the ruling coalition, while Zelenskiy's Servant of the People party will attempt to seat its first members.


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