Ukraine’s ruling Servant of the People Party's honeymoon is over after it loses ground in regional elections to local incumbents

Ukraine’s ruling Servant of the People Party's honeymoon is over after it loses ground in regional elections to local incumbents
The ruling Servant of the People Party saw its vote count cut in half in regional elections, where the local incumbents re-asserted control over Ukraine's most important cities
By Ben Aris in Berlin October 27, 2020

The ruling Servant of the People (SOTP) Party got hammered in Ukraine’s regional elections over the weekend, where the governorships and mayor’s offices in the main towns were up for grabs.

The party set up by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and named after the comedy show that made him famous won a landslide victory last summer in the general election, taking an absolute majority of 54%. But with the slow pace of reform and the party's failure to make much progress on Zelenskiy’s main election promises – end corruption, bring peace to the Donbas, and increase the incomes of the population – the honeymoon is well and truly over and the party has now been punished at the polls.

SOTP is expecting to take about 30% of the overall votes in the election, down from the 64% it won in the 2019 snap parliamentary elections.

Normally regional elections are a non-event, but this year they are more important thanks to a new Electoral Code that both decentralises power by resetting relations between local governments and Kyiv and mandates that women occupy no less than 40% of local council seats.

Despite SOTP poor showing, it retains a core constituency of supporters and remains a political force in the country. While Zelenskiy has seen his personal ratings fall dramatically in recent months, he remains by far the most popular politician in the country and would almost certainly be re-elected as president if elections for the post were held on Sunday.

The really big loser in these elections was opposition leader, former Prime Minister and head of Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) Party Yulia Tymoshenko, whose party failed to win any representation.

Once the prominent prime minister of the Orange government following the revolution that ousted Leonid Kuchma in 2008-2009, Tymoshenko’s star has waned inexorably since the 2014 revolution of dignity that ousted president Viktor Yanukovych. Her fiery popularist rhetoric has failed to strike a chord with voters and she is increasingly seen as relic of pass politics from a system that has been completely discredited.

Tymoshenko lost ground at the expense of parties backed by oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who has already taken command of a group of some 40 deputies within the SOTP fraction.

The other big established player is Viktor Medvedchuk, the head of the Political Council of the Opposition Platform, For Life Party and a close personal friend and ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Kolomoisky bankrolled Zelenskiy's presidential campaign in 2018 but since then has focused on undermining the independence of the National Bank of Ukraine (NBU) as part of his campaign to take back control of PrivatBank that was nationalised in 2016, or at least get the state to pay him $2bn in compensation. Increasingly he is actively working against Zelenskiy, who is trying to sail a middle ground between the demands of the people and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on one side and his friend on the other.

He also has experience in regional politics, having served as governor of the Dnepropetrovsk region where he armed a local militia to prevent Russian-backed separates taking over as the fighting in Donbas began. He was eventually fired by Poroshenko, but retains deep ties to the industrially powerful region. 

During his early career Medvedchuk was seen as the eminence grise behind the Kuchma government that was close to Moscow in the '90s and a willing partner in looting the country of billions of dollars from its gas transit business. He is now seen as the Kremlin’s proxy in Ukrainian politics.

And the two men are allies. While they have very different agendas they both control major media assets and even have joint holdings in the leading 1+1 broadcaster that was instrumental in getting Zelenskiy elected president.

By improving their hold they further the oligarchic political system in Ukraine that has perverted politics towards the interests of the existing elite and made it increasingly difficult to push through the genuine reforms demanded by donors such as the IMF. The regional election results will also strengthen Moscow’s hand in Ukrainian domestic politics.

Medvedchuk’s Opposition Platform, For Life party did well and won seats in multiple regional councils to establish itself as a political force at the regional level. The Kolomoisky-backed For Future Party, however, failed to win a single seat in the regional councils, despite a heavy advertising campaign.

Poroshenko’s European Solidarity Party won representation in all regional assemblies except for the breakaway Donestk and Luhansk regions and improved its 2020 results (blue) compared to the parliamentary election 2019 (yellow). As Zelenskiy’s popularity wanes that of Poroshenko’s party has improved.  

“As expected, Ukraine has become more polarised, with Kyiv firmly rejecting pro-Russian forces in its city council results, but the south-eastern cities becoming more Russian-oriented,” Zenon Zawada of Concorde Capital said in a note. “As expected, the pro-Putin Opposition Platform For Life Party had strong results, likely gaining the second-largest factions in the city councils of Kharkiv, Odesa and Dnipro, according to the Rating exit poll.”

 

Mayors are big winners

The main winners in the elections were incumbent mayors in the biggest cities, which largely managed to hold on to their seats.

The mayors of Ukraine’s seven-largest cities gained the most votes, some of them exceeding the 50% threshold and allowing them to win in the first round.

Under the new election laws, local elections are held primarily according to the party list system, with 5% thresholds for representation on local councils. Settlements with fewer than 10,000 people will still use single-mandate districts.

The main race was for control of the city hall in Kyiv, where the ex-boxing champion Vladimir Klitschko was defending his position. Klitschko announced he had contracted coronavirus (COVID-19) shortly before the vote, but still managed to win re-election in the first round with 50.6% of the vote after 99.5% of the ballots were counted.

Klitschko easily beat Oleksandr Popov, his predecessor and candidate from the pro-Putin Opposition Platform For Life Party, who won 8.6% of the vote, according to the exit poll of the Rating Sociological Group.

In the vote for the Kyiv city council – the more important body as it is the one that actually spends the money – the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform led by Klitschko earned about 21.3% of votes, while former President Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity Party, led by his wife Maryna Poroshenko, took about 18%. The president’s SOTP, led by Yevhenia Kuleba, came in third with about 9.5%, according to the Rating exit poll.

SOTP did poorly in all the important regional city races, which will undermine its grip on the Rada, where it is already facing increased opposition as rival groups, many of them backed by powerful oligarchs, are actively working against the SOTP fraction and persuading its deputies to leave the fraction.

In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, mayor Hennadiy Kernes won re-election with 57.9% of the vote, followed by Oleksandr Feldman with 12.1%, the exit poll said.

In Odesa, Ukraine’s third-largest city, incumbent mayor Gennady Trukhanov also won with 34.6% of the vote, but will now face a run-off against Mykola Skoryk of the pro-Putin Opposition Platform who took 17.7%.

In Dnipro, Ukraine’s fourth-largest city, Borys Filatov took 44.4% of the vote, followed by Zahid Krasnov of The People’s Servant Party with 14.4%.

“The biggest story of these local elections, which was expected, is the surge in support for local leaders and parties above national ones. All four mayors re-elected in Ukraine’s largest cities lead their own local parties that have no presence in Parliament. Moreover, they are not capable [of] competing for Parliament. But they are very popular at the local level, which is a unique phenomenon in Ukrainian politics,” according to Concorde Capital’s Zawada.

The success of the local mayors is a feature of the decentralisation of power, which has been one of the most successful reforms implemented since the 2014 Euromaidan revolution.

More than 1,400 newly merged communities have been formed since 2014, which have more resources, decision-making authority, and power that has been delegated from Kyiv to solve local community problems. the decentralisation process has been pushed on Kyiv by its Western donor partners as a way to improve local government and reduce corruption.

While the polls show the population is very unhappy with the national government – the last poll found two thirds of Ukrainians believe the country is going in the “wrong direction” – the same polls find the opposite is true of attitudes to local government, where they are very happy.

Local leaders have focused on things like collecting the rubbish, lighting the streets, funding the schools and repairing the roads to the widespread approval of the local populations. A similar phenomenon is seen in Russia, although there it is less noticeable and less successful when compared to Ukraine.

Turnout and Hungarian interference

Voter turnout was decent, but not astronomical at 37%, compared with 46.6% in the 2015 local elections, according to the Central Election Commission, which cited the COVID-19 pandemic as a major source for the drop in turnout. One fifth of registered voters said they didn’t participate owing to health reasons, according to the Rating sociological group.

The election was deemed to be free and fair, although some abuses were reported including: carousel voting schemes, and insufficient voting booths and ballot boxes.

One smallish scandal involved the Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, who called upon ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine to vote for the candidates of a particular party, the Association of Hungarian Culture in Zakarpattia.

Ukraine is home to a large ethnic Hungarian population that lives along the Ukrainian side of the border. This population was negatively affected by former President Petro Poroshenko's drive to ban “foreign languages” in public life and schools as part of his nationalistic driven rhetoric. While Poroshenko’s rules were aimed at Russophiles, the Hungarian community was caught up in the crossfire that generated much resentment. The scandal deepened when the Hungarian consulate in the region was caught handing out Hungarian passports to the locals. Relations between Budapest and Kyiv have been tense since.

Szijjarto also called for the residents of the town of Berehovo to re-elect its ethnic Hungarian mayor, Zoltan Babiak. He encouraged Ukrainian citizens living in Hungary to cross the border to vote, stating they would not be required to undergo a 14-day quarantine. All of this drew a strong rebuke from the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, which accused Hungary of interfering in its domestic politics.

“Budapest’s ignoring of numerous calls by Kyiv to stop abusing the principles of rule of law and neighbourly relations, and to respect Ukraine’s laws,” the statement said. “Unpleasant suggestions to voters by Budapest violate Ukrainian legislation and don’t leave the Ukrainian side another choice than harshly reacting to such steps according to established international practice and the legislation of Ukraine.”

National poll conducted in parallel

In parallel to the regional vote Zelenskiy organised a poll to answer five questions. This poll was partly a pre-election stunt, as the debate it engendered allowed the Zelenskiy team to take control of the media coverage ahead of the election as it drip-fed questions into the public sphere, and to control of debate.

Some of the questions themselves were criticised for being vague and/or meaningless, rather than forming the basis of some sort of referendum to provide the president’s office with an agenda going forward. A third of those that voted said they ignored the poll, according to the Rating Sociological Group.

81% of those who responded to the first question: “do you support life in prison sentences for those involved in large scale corruption?” said they agree. About 45% of respondents said they support creating a free trade zone in the Donbas region, about 95% support reducing the number of MPs to 300, from 450 currently, about 70% support legalising cannabis for medical use and 78% support raising Ukraine’s security guarantees in the Budapest Memorandum.

“As expected, these elections will be declared free and fair by election observers, and meeting international standards. Zelenskiy’s national poll was too poorly organised to be taken seriously. It will be soon forgotten, given how few participated overall and how easily multiple ballots could have been cast,” Zenon Zawada of Concorde Capital said in a note.

 

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