Television comedian Volodymyr Zelensky seized headlines when he swept Ukraine’s presidential elections in May. Now the Ukrainian president appears set to dramatically refashion the country’s political landscape.
According to preliminary results posted Monday by Ukraine’s Central Election Commission, Zelensky’s Servant of the People party looks poised to win a possible outright majority in parliamentary elections that were held Sunday.
According to the CEC, his newly formed party won 42.5% of the party-list vote, well ahead of several other parties that need to pass the 5% threshold to gain seats in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament. And his party also appears to be sweeping up votes in individual constituencies, racking up another 125 seats.
The results are not final: As of Monday morning, around 55% of the votes had been counted. But it no longer appears that Zelensky will need to enter into a coalition to form a government.
And that represents a stunning turn of events in this fractious post-Soviet republic.
For starters, it’s a clean slate. Zelensky, a political newcomer, was previously known as the star of a television series in which he played an accidental president.
That series — called Servant of the People, and the inspiration for his party’s name — underscored Ukrainian frustrations with politics as usual. Zelensky played a schoolteacher who vaults to the country’s top office after his anti-corruption rant goes viral.
If the projected results stand, Zelensky will be the first president since the country’s independence in 1991 to be backed by a parliamentary majority. And that gives him a clear mandate when it comes to tackling Ukraine’s biggest problems: Corruption, a struggling economy, and a simmering war with pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east.
Since independence, Ukraine has been beset by kleptocracy and political turmoil. It has seen two major popular revolutions: The pro-democratic Orange Revolution of 2004-2005 and the Maidan Revolution of 2014, which led to the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and set in motion Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the separatist conflict in the east.
Discontent with the status quo also propelled another unexpected newcomer into politics: Rock musician Sviatoslav Vakarchuk. His party, Voice, won 6.3% of Sunday’s vote, according to preliminary results, enough to win a place in parliament.
As president, Zelensky will have to contend with a powerful, nuclear-armed neighbor led by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin has made clear that he does not see Ukrainian statehood as something natural or legitimate.
In a recent conversation with American film director Oliver Stone — who has endorsed the Kremlin’s view that the Maidan Revolution was in fact a Western-orchestrated coup d’etat — Putin said that some form of reunification between Russia and Ukraine was inevitable, given the intertwined histories of the two Slavic nations.
“I believe that Russians and Ukrainians are actually one people,” Putin said.
“One people, two nations?” Stone asked.
“One nation, in fact,” Putin replied.
Whatever thoughts Putin may have about the legitimacy of Ukrainian statehood, Sunday’s parliamentary election appeared to be a firm rebuke. The pro-Russian Opposition Platform party came in a distant second to Zelensky’s party, garnering 12.9% of the party-list vote, according to the latest preliminary results.
And that gives Zelensky a much more unified front when it comes to negotiating with Putin.
Already, the two leaders have discussed a potential prisoner swap, and a resounding parliamentary victory may — potentially — give Zelensky a stronger hand when it comes to playing poker with Putin.