The Death of Ukraine’s Liberals
Western-oriented reformers are about to get completely wiped out in parliamentary elections—and they have nobody to blame but themselves.
On the morning of his presidential inauguration speech in front of the tribunal in parliament, Ukraine’s newly elected president, the former television actor Volodymyr Zelensky, announced his first act would be to dissolve the very parliament that he was addressing and to hold snap elections. The 41-year-old’s victory over the incumbent president, Petro Poroshenko, amid widespread dissatisfaction with the pace of economic and political reforms marked a political rupture for Ukraine. But the parliamentary elections promise a bigger rupture yet—and perhaps the demise of the previous generation of Ukraine’s Western-oriented liberal reformers.
Facing electoral annihilation, several dozen members of parliament challenged the legality of the dissolution of the legislature in front of Ukraine’s Constitutional Court. The televised judicial process that followed was a media circus, with Ukrainian political insiders speculating openly on the political loyalties of the presiding judges. But the result felt like a fait accompli: the court ruled in favor of the president. The snap parliamentary elections are set to take place on July 21.
According to polls, Zelensky’s Servant of the People party—named after the television show that propelled him to power, in which he played, appropriately enough, a disgruntled everyman unexpectedly elevated to the presidency—stands ready to receive up to half of all cast ballots. The process is strongly reminiscent of the swift and total parliamentary victory of French President Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche! movement shortly after he had similarly decapitated the structure of the previous political regime. If the president’s party does not underperform most expectations, the only serious question is whether it will need any other coalition partners to govern. It would be the first time since Ukrainian independence that one party took sole control of the government.
Several major parties are set to be wiped out electorally after failing to clear the 5 percent threshold necessary to join parliament. The ranks of liberal lawmakers who had been the backbone of the reform process over the last five years will be especially hard-hit. Former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front, and the western Ukraine-based Samopomich (“Self-reliance”) party are two major parties with distinct platforms formed in the wake of the 2014 Maidan revolution, but even their critics acknowledge that both have been home to many of the most creative and reform-oriented members of parliament. Both parties are currently represented by dozens of MPs; both seem set be eliminated entirely from representation in the next parliament.
One way for the liberals to preserve their reform agenda would have been for them to join parties that have not become as thoroughly discredited with the public. The newly formed Holos (“Voice”) party, founded the by rock singer Svyatoslav Vakarchuk—which is gaining in the polls—is in competition with Poroshenko’s party to present a viable reform alternative to Zelensky. It would seem to offer one viable option, and polls suggest it will be one of five parties to join the next parliament. But Holos, like Servant of the People, has declared it wants to bring all new faces into parliament; both parties have decided to play up their “change” credibility by refusing to accept sitting members of parliament onto their party lists.
Prominent liberal representatives of the 2014 revolution are beginning to reckon with the end of their movement. Mustafa Nayyem, the investigative journalist whose thunderous clarion call over social media for Kiev to rise up in revolution against the kleptocracy of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, recently announced over Facebook that he would not be running to retain the seat in parliament that he originally took on Poroshenko’s party list in 2014. “I do not need a mandate at any price,” he wrote. Several other prominent and widely respected Ukrainian lawmakers from the class of 2014—including Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Hanna Hopko—have joined Nayyem in stepping down. Other prominent reformers such as Alex Ryabchyn, who is a member of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party, were allocated party list numbers that are much lower than the parties’ projected polling, thus ensuring that they effectively have no chance of reelection.
Several reformers have taken their names off of party lists, hoping instead for direct election in single-mandate districts, but most will be running against opponents that are better funded and organized and have access to powerful oligarch-backed media. Some of those opponents will have the advantage of being attached to the new president’s party, which a quarter of Ukrainians are inclined to vote for, regardless of the candidate.
Nayyem’s friend Svitlana Zalishchuk, a journalist-turned-reformist politician, is one of many prominent MPs who did not find a place on a party list. She has returned to her native village in the Cherkasy region to contest an individual mandate seat on a bare-bones budget along with flyers and billboards paid for by her Kiev-based friends. Zalishchuk told FP that only a handful of the previous generation of reformers were likely to reappear in the next parliament. She characterized the rejection of liberals as an indiscriminate purge by the public of post-Maidan politicians—even members of the opposition and reformers who had initiated the Maidan revolution (and, in some cases, the previous 2004 Orange revolution) and made such political expression possible in the first place. “This is a kind of de facto lustration of the post-Maidan reformers,” she said.
There are many reasons for Ukrainians’ dissatisfaction with the reformers they entrusted in 2014 to help change the country, but the irony is that the liberals inadvertently contributed to the atmosphere that has led to their own political demise. The reformists’ harsh criticism of the corruption of former President Poroshenko’s government didn’t just create an atmosphere of impatience for gains that by any objective measure would take decades to take hold. It also helped produce public disenchantment with the entire political class, convincing the public that all the parties in parliament were corrupt, including the reformers themselves. Ukrainians are in no longer in any mood to make nuanced distinctions between insiders and the principled opposition.
The Ukrainian Maidan reformers also did not help their case with their incessant infighting. Squabbling among competing factions of pro-Western reformers increased in the past year, and liberals were unable to agree on basic strategic and operational questions, including the question of who should lead their movement. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian public will now decide on their behalf. It’s unlikely to be an answer that any of them will find satisfactory.