Zelenskyy’s consolidation of power: a chance for change or authoritarianism?

President Zelenskyy now concentrates significant power in his hands. Photo: president.gov.ua 

Politics

Editor’s Note

After a resounding victory of 73% during presidential elections, Volodymyr Zelenskyy has scored another goal in Ukraine’s parliament. The parliamentary elections held on 21 July have given his party Servant of the People 254 seats out of the total 450. For the first time in the history of independent Ukraine, since the Communist Party lost its monopoly, a single party will have a majority in parliament, making it possible for Zelenskyy to push through any law he wants – an action requiring 226 votes. The only thing in the way of Zelenskyy’s power is the so-called constitutional majority – a minimum of 300 votes to change the Constitution.

A dizzying success for a party which is no less a newcomer to politics than the celebrity president himself, who had stopped his performances with the comedy show Kvartal 95 only with the start of the presidential campaign. While some observers (especially those outside Ukraine) view the current political situation as an opportunity for Zelenskyy to push through big changes in Ukraine, others (especially those inside Ukraine) are alarmed that such a concentration of power in the hands of one person may be Ukraine’s ticket into the world of authoritarian states like neighboring Russia and Belarus.

Who is right? Let’s try making an educated guess.

How monolithic is Servant of the People?

For Zelenskyy to have a chance at authoritarianism, he must have the possibility to push any laws he wants through parliament. Although his party holds a majority, this doesn’t guarantee they will all vote the same way – as the party is anything but monolithic.

Named after a popular TV show in which Zelenskyy played the role of a history teacher who by the twist of fate landed in the president’s seat, Servant of the People is so far a big unknown for everyone – including Zelenskyy himself. Many figures on the party list and their positions were unknown to the public. This number increased after Servant of the People came out victorious in the single-mandate constituencies, where seemingly miscellaneous people such as wedding photographers rode to victory under the “Ze” brand.

Since Zelenskyy’s and the Servant of the People’s campaigns were focused on criticizing the elites and were as vague as possible to avoid alienating potential voters, both the party’s support base and the members it attracted in its several months of campaigning have diverse positions on Ukraine’s most important political divide: a pro-Russian or pro-western policy. Political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko notes that the Servant’s list already includes people with liberal views, people who think that making “peace” with Russia should be the priority, and simply professionals whose glances are unknown.

With such an ideological diversity, ideological differences and quarrels within the party will start manifesting shortly, Fesenko notes, adding that the Servant of the People’s number one challenge for the nearest time will be to build a real party.

Political expert Taras Chornovil, on the other hand, divided the “Servants” into three categories. The largest one will work in the interests of oligarch Kolomoyskyi, the owner of the 1+1 TV channel responsible for Zelenskyy’s rise to fame. The second, smaller one, consists of people of Zelenskyy himself. The third is the miscellaneous faces from the single-mandate (majoritarian) constituencies, who Chornovil says are likely to serve the interests of whoever will offer them money.

Thus, although the Servant of the People holds a majority, its unanimity is under question, at least for the nearest time. This sets Zelenskyy apart from ex-president Viktor Yanukovych who was swept out of power by the Euromaidan revolution. Yanukovych’s authoritarianism was enabled by his Party of Regions – a disciplined political power cemented together by a system of client-patron loyalties. However, only time will tell if Zelenskyy’s young and miscellaneous party members will have the guts to vote against the person who gave them the ticket to power.

And though the Servant of the People has proclaimed the goal to make withdrawing MPs possible if they “lose the public’s trust” – which can be also read “if they vote against the party management’s will,” this is most likely a populist measure, says political analyst Andriy Duda, as this will require changing the constitution. So, easy party reshuffles for the sake of unanimity also look unrealistic.

Checks, balances, and support of society

Zelensky’s skyrocketing popularity is reflected in these souvenir sculptures which are now being sold on the internet. Photo: olx.ua

Zelenskyy’s sweeping victory has dealt a blow to a major anti-authoritarian “check and balance”: political competition. As the majority of Ukrainians who voted for Servant of the People actually voted for one person – Zelenskyy himself, this means that, according to political analyst Vitaliy Portnikov, that

“Ukrainians do not perceive the state as a mechanism of checks and balances when it comes to regional, political and social interests. They do not want to take an active part in the development of the state through their elected members of parliament. They do not want to know about contradictions and policies, which can only be solved through free parliamentary debate. They want to believe that all responsibility for solving these contradictions, for making decisions and changes in the country lies with one single person – the president. In this sense, the attitude of Ukrainians towards their government is much more reminiscent of the attitude of Russians or Belarusians than the attitude of Poles or Czechs.”

However, Ukrainians differ from Belarusians and Russians in having very low trust in their authorities. Right now, the country is engulfed in a “Zeuphoria,” when for the first time in decades more Ukrainians think the country is going in the right direction than those who disagree. But as soon as they understand that there are no simple solutions to Ukraine’s problems and that life is not going to radically improve anytime soon, their belief in Zelenskyy will wane, Portnikov writes. Which again is a bad prognosis for authoritarianism.

As well, the establishment of authoritarian rule cannot happen without the support of society. And although Zelenskyy still enjoys considerable support, most Ukrainians do not want an authoritarian regime. Speaking in terms of sociology, although over 60% of Ukrainians agreed in 2018 that Ukraine needs a “strong hand,” not “conversations about democracy,” only 21% agreed that Ukraine needs a Stalin-type leader which will “bring order,” and 61% did not. Only 14% of Ukrainians support making Ukraine a presidential republic, and only 25% support expanding presidential powers.

At the same time, Zelenskyy has sent direct signals that authoritarianism is very much in his interests. The absurd proposal to lustrate all officials and politicians from Poroshenko’s time is revealing of the type of governance that he finds attractive. His push to hold early local elections – which are most likely to end like the parliamentary ones, with an overwhelming victory of the Ze brand – signifies another attempt to get more power. So far, he has the support of Ukrainian society, which, driven by a hatred of Ukrainian elites, believes in Zelenskyy as a combination of a Messian and Robin Hood figure, being enchanted by populist promises. And while he does, the time is ripe for him to solidify his grip over Ukraine’s institutes. The next months will show whether he will choose to do this.

So, although Zelenskyy does have the upper hand for solidifying his grip at the moment, Ukrainians are unlikely to put up with it for too long.

Money, money, money

Although Ukraine’s vote in the parliamentary elections does make it similar to its neighboring authoritarian Russia or Belarus, this doesn’t mean that tomorrow Ukraine will become a gray authoritarian state where all the power is concentrated in the president’s office and the parliament will become a “crazy printer” like the Russian Duma, the executive powers will absorb the judiciary, and the TV channels will glorify the “Servant of the People,” which will have morphed into the “Father of the nation,” writes political analyst Vitaliy Portnikov. Somebody needs to pay for the banquet. Putin built his regime on petrorubles, and Lukashenka – on handouts from his northern neighbor. Unless Zelenskyy chooses the path of the latter, Ukraine simply does not have the means to build up a repressive authoritarian state: nobody has succeeded in building an authoritarian state based on loans from the IMF.

What do you think? Will Zelenskyy's coming to power result in authoritarianism in Ukraine?

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