Kiev, Ukraine – Zinaida Kononenko, 63, has voted in every presidential and parliamentary election in Ukraine, hoping that the country’s political leaders would improve living standards.
“Every time, they failed,” the deputy director of a kindergarten, said on Sunday after casting her ballot in Ukraine’s snap parliamentary election.
“But this time, it’s going to be different because these new guys are not professional politicians; they haven’t learned how to steal,” Kononenko said at a polling station in central Kiev.
The “new guys” come from Servant of the People, a party of political novices named after a television series that three months ago propelled its leader, the comedian Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to Ukraine’s presidency.
In the series, Zelenskyy played a destitute and divorced schoolteacher whose diatribe about Ukraine’s political establishment made him a YouTube star and then president, against all political odds.
The 41-year-old actor ran for presidency in real life, trouncing President Petro Poroshenko in elections in April and winning almost 73 percent of the votes. But Ukraine’s powerful parliament, known as Verkhovna Rada, was dominated by Poroshenko’s loyalists, and Zelenskyy’s first step as president was to announce a snap parliamentary election in the hopes of securing an outright majority.
The legislators and Poroshenko-appointed ministers responded by rejecting most of the new president’s initiatives, including proposals for electoral reform and the dismissal of an allegedly corrupt prosecutor general.
Despite the early setbacks, Zelenskyy retained his high approval ratings, and his party won almost 44 percent of votes on Sunday, according to an exit polls conducted by the Democratic Initiatives Fund, an independent pollster.
The preliminary official results will be annonced on Monday.
Some observers, however, are sceptical about the anti-establishment fervour of Zelenskyy’s party.
A Kyiv-based expert called its members “political surfers” that are backed by deeply-entrenched players such as oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky widely seen as Zelenskyy’s main backer. Zelenskyy’s television series, as well as his immensely popular comic show, aired on Kolomoisky’s 1 1 television network, and the oligarch’s lawyers and aides became part of Zelenskyy’s team.
The vote on Sunday signifies “a total victory of the anti-establishment wave that destroys existing political coalitions”, analyst Alexey Kushch told Al Jazeera. “But political surfers – that are not, in fact, anti-establishment forces but continue the political mainstream – ride this wave.”
If Servant of the People fails to secure an absolute majority in parliament, Zelenskyy will most likely have to form a coalition. Observers say the most likely coalition partner is Voice – a party formed just months ago by Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, Ukraine’s biggest rock star, which got 6.3 percent of the votes, according to the exit poll.
The second-most-popular party is projected to be Opposition Platform – For Life, which is co-headed by oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The party is largely backed by ethnic Russians or Russian-speaking Ukrainians in southeastern regions, and got almost 12 percent of the vote, according to the exit poll.
To its supporters, the party symbolises the rule of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich who was toppled in 2014 after months-long protests.
“That was a golden age,” Oleksiy Klyukin, who owned a furniture workshop at the time, said. “The [Ukrainian currency] hryvna was strong, everyone was making money, and [natural] gas was cheap.”
Fatherland, headed by former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, got 7.6 percent of the vote, and Poroshenko’s European Solidarity polled at almost nine percent.
Vakarchuk’s Voice is slated to gain about six percent of the vote.