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TCUP—the Temerty Contemporary Ukraine Program—is a new initiative at HURI that focuses on matters related to today's Ukraine. Here, Emily Channell-Justice, TCUP Director, provides an overview of commentary on the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Parliament 400The Ukrainian Parliamentary Elections will take place on July 21, 2019. President Volodymyr Zelensky’s party, Sluha Narodu (Servant of the People), is likely to win the most seats, currently polling over 40% according to numerous groups (see IAP, KIIS, and Razumkov). What else should we expect following Sunday’s vote?

Hromadske International lays out the playing field and the organization of the elections, a mixed system that includes both party lists (225 seats) and constituency candidates (199 seats). According to polls, five parties will win the 5% required to enter the Rada: Servant of the People, Opposition Platform-For Life (a pro-Russian opposition coalition), European Solidarity (associated with former president Petro Poroshenko), Batkivshchyna (Yulia Tymoshenko’s party), and Holos (party of Sviatoslav Vakharchuk, frontman of the Ukrainian rock band Okean Elzy). Other parties can be represented by single (first-past-the-post) candidates.

Zelensky’s election promises were vague throughout his campaign, leading many to conclude that his popularity is more connected to his image and lack of political predictability than to belief in his capability to achieve specific policy goals. What can we realistically expect Zelensky to accomplish once his party is dominant in the Rada?

Molly Montgomery explores Zelensky’s popularity but expresses concerns about his potential to make real changes, even after gaining a majority in the Verkhovna Rada.

“Zelenskiy’s popularity and the strength of his mandate are a double-edged sword. The parliamentary elections will give him the power necessary to fulfill his promises of systemic reform. Now he will have to use it. If he does, he will face fierce opposition from Ukraine’s oligarchy, the tentacles of which reach deep into Ukrainian society. If he does not, the Ukrainian people will quickly recognize once again that promises of reform don’t put food on the table or money in their pockets, and they will once again become disillusioned.”

Similarly, Peter Dickinson considers both the potentially positive outcomes and the challenges that will face Zelensky’s government.

“Optimists see this as a new dawn in Ukrainian politics and believe the new intake can use its overwhelming mandate for change to transform the country’s political culture. Others scoff at such notions, preferring to regard the entire Zelenskyy phenomenon as a particularly clever and opportunistic example of post-Soviet “political technology” designed to safeguard to the positions of Ukraine’s oligarchy and facilitate the return of Yanukovych-era figures. Whatever their true intentions may be, much will depend on Team Zelenskyy’s ability to marshal a disparate collection of deputies into a disciplined political force. With hundreds of newcomer Zelennial MPs entering parliament and coherent policy positions thin on the ground, the potential for chaos is worryingly high.”

The question of whether these new representatives herald a new political culture is significant. Most Ukrainians lack trust in the institution of the Rada itself, and many expect representatives to become more prone to pursuing self-interest and patronage benefits after they are elected. But Sarah Whitmore remains optimistic about the potential for reform, if a majority of representatives are committed:

“However, a new Rada with an unprecedented influx of fresh faces brought in by citizen’s desire for (among other things) a less corrupt and self-serving elite could offer an opening for the new president to press forward on stalled reforms that could engender wider systemic change and hold the possibility for reforming the Rada and re-engaging the population.”

Hopes remain high for a new era of effective governance in Ukraine. But Zelensky’s promise to be a one-term president leaves open the possibility of yet another stagnated political body, unable to accomplish reforms and regain citizens’ trust.

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Emily Channell-Justice is the Director of the Temerty Contemporary Ukraine Program at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. She received her PhD in sociocultural anthropology from The Graduate Center, City University of New York, in 2016. Her research focuses on political participation and social movements in contemporary Ukraine, where she has done ethnographic fieldwork since 2012. She has received grants from Fulbright IIE and American Councils Title VIII Research Scholar Program, and she has taught in anthropology and international studies departments at Miami University (Ohio) and John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY).

Watch our roundtable talks on the Ukrainian Presidential Election, the first before the election and the second after: