Kiev, Ukraine – “Ukraine’s funniest man” may become its most powerful post-Soviet ruler after his nascent party of political first-timers and B-list politicians narrowly won a parliament majority, according to preliminary results released on Monday.
The sudden, stratospheric rise of comedian Volodymyr Zelenskyy to Ukraine‘s presidency in April was hobbled by the Verkhovna Rada parliament which approves most domestic decisions and was dominated by figures loyal to his predecessor, nationalist oligarch Petro Poroshenko.
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Zelenskyy’s first step as president after his inauguration in May was to announce a snap parliamentary vote, held on Sunday.
The legislators used their remaining time in office to block or vote down his bills to strip them of immunity from prosecution and to reform the electoral system.
Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party, named after a television series in which he played a schoolteacher-turned-president, enlisted hundreds of political unknowns, including his fellow comedians, anti-corruption activists, economists and lawyers who had no ties to the old establishment.
The party won 227 seats in the 450-seat parliament, winning a thin majority, the Central Election Commission said on Monday, after counting almost 60 percent of the ballots.
“Welcome to a new reality, the elections have taken place,” Ukraine’s top election official, Tetiana Slipachuk, told a news conference on Monday.
Many observers agree. “This is indeed a new reality,” Kiev-based analyst Mikhail Pogrebinsky told Al Jazeera.
“The fact that the party that did not exist six months ago has a chance to form a one-party coalition is something absolutely unprecedented in Ukraine.”
In Ukraine’s complex electoral system, half of parliament’s seats are formed by party lists, while the other half are single seats in local constituencies, where winners are less predictable and occasionally buy votes, according to election monitors.
Servant of the People got more than 42 percent of the vote and 121 seats according to party lists, and got another 106 single seats, the commission said.
If confirmed by the final tally, the party’s domination of parliament will herald a new era in Ukraine’s politics.
Overcoming old divisions
Zelenskyy’s team now has a monopoly on forming a new government, appointing regional heads and controlling the judiciary and law enforcement system.
They may have to tone down populist pledges such as the blacklisting of officials who worked under Poroshenko and a sharp decrease in the price of Russian natural gas that fuels Ukraine’s economy.
“They will have to correct their position towards more political realism,” Pogrebinsky said.
Zelenskyy, who hails from a Russian-speaking Jewish family from the eastern rust-belt city of Kryvyi Rih, also has a chance to heal post-Soviet Ukraine’s deep divisions across linguistic, cultural and economic lines.
Western and central regions are dominated by the Ukrainian-speaking population which distrusts Moscow; political preferences have formed the agenda of most post-Soviet governments.
Eastern and southern provinces remain mostly Russian-speaking, and their residents largely gravitate towards Russia culturally without necessarily being loyal to the Kremlin.
They also resist Kiev’s push to make Ukrainian the dominant language.
The linguistic push has influenced the success of the Opposition Platform-For Life, the second-most successful party in Sunday’s vote, which received almost 13 percent of the vote, according to preliminary results.
One of its leaders, Viktor Medvedchuk, is widely seen as Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s main man in Ukraine, but his party’s success does not mean it supports unanimous allegiance to Moscow.
“People vote for their right to speak Russian,” analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera. The resistance to “forced Ukrainisation”, he added, was the spark for the Moscow-backed separatist uprising in Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014 that followed Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the ousting of pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych.
But the subsequent presidency of Poroshenko, a billionaire and political chameleon who turned to belligerent nationalism, proved disastrous.
The war that claimed around 13,000 lives is still smouldering, corruption is rife, and an economic tailspin caused by the disruption of ties with Russia turned Ukraine into one of Europe‘s poorest nations.
Unsurprisingly, Poroshenko lost the presidential election with less than 25 percent of the vote, and his rebranded European Solidarity party got less than nine percent in Sunday’s parliamentary election. The All-Ukrainian Union “Fatherland”, the party of another veteran politician and former premier, Yulia Tymoshenko, got eight percent.
“This is a collapse of political elites,” Kiev-based analyst Igar Tyshkevich told Al Jazeera. “And that includes regional elites, that are known in Ukraine as ‘local feudals’.”
Since the early 2000s, competing oligarchs and powerful industrial groups have held sway in Ukraine’s politics, forming and breaking alliances and fielding their puppets in elections, he said.
The new parliament may crush the system, giving Zelenskyy a chance to weaken the oligarchs.
However, Zelenskyy’s opponents claimed that he is nothing but a creature of another powerful billionaire oligarch, Ihor Kolomoisky, whose One Plus One television network aired his mini-series and comic shows, and some of whose employees now work for Zelenskyy.
However, the very composition of Servant of the People – a motley collection of businessmen, experts on law and economics, and anti-corruption activists – guarantees their adherence to a reformist agenda and not to Zelenskyy personally, Tyshkevich said.
“They declare loyalty to ideas, not the leader,” Tyshkevich said. But some insiders doubt their success will translate into real change, as the core of Zelenskyy’s party consists of his colleagues and employees.
“This is going to be a disaster for Ukraine,” a showbusiness executive who has known Zelenskyy and his team for years, told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.
“In their field [of comedy] they’re good professionals, but I don’t think these people know what they’re doing in politics.”
Some average Ukrainians realise that Zelenskyy and his party face years of hard work to crush or subdue the old political establishment, appoint new prosecutors and judges to fight corruption, and restart peace talks with Moscow.
“The honeymoon is over, now they will show what their promises are worth,” Oleksandr Kovtunenko, who owns a tiny cafeteria in central Kiev, told Al Jazeera.
“If they fail, the new Maidan will sweep them away,” he said referring to the nearby Maidan square, where massive rallies erupted in 2004 and 2014 to shake up Ukraine’s political system.