Rise of the Zelennials: Ukraine’s Parliamentary Elections Signal Generational Shift
Ukrainians are set to vote out the vast majority of current MPs on July 21 in parliamentary elections that will mark a generational shift in the country’s political landscape and hand unprecedented power to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The election is a continuation of the ballot box revolution that began earlier this year when almost three-quarters of Ukrainian voters backed forty-one-year-old political novice Zelenskyy for the presidency over his experienced but tainted rival. The message is unmistakable: after almost three decades of chronic corruption and repeated false starts, voters want fundamental change and are willing to gamble with the country’s future in order to get it.
Polls predict Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party will secure around 45 percent of votes. Much like Zelenskyy himself, most of the future MPs poised to represent his party in the Rada are unknown, with the list of candidates containing a mix of activists, business figures, and novelty personalities together with a sprinkling of more experienced political operatives. Their arrival in parliament will mark the real start of the Zelenskyy era, with the president set to enjoy levels of political dominance rarely seen before. Once he has secured control of parliament, we will soon see what sort of politician Zelenskyy really is.
Commentators are already dubbing this new intake of Zelenskyy MPs as the “Zelennial” generation, with many predicting they will dominate politics for the next five years. 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.
President Zelenskyy will also probably have to build political partnerships in order to form a functioning coalition. According to current polls, he will fall short of an absolute majority with four additional parties joining Servant of the People in Ukraine’s next parliament. The pro-Kremlin “Opposition Platform–For Life” party lies in second place with around 12 percent support, while Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity, Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland, and rocker-turned-politician Slava Vakarchuk’s Voice party are all polling at approximately 6-9 percent.
Vakarchuk’s newcomer status and emphasis on distancing his party from the current political culture makes him the most obvious coalition partner for the Zelennials. Together, Vakarchuk and Zelenskyy could secure more than 50 percent of seats in the new legislature. If the two celebrity politicians do join forces, it would represent the most dramatic shift in the country’s political landscape since Ukraine gained independence in 1991.
Why are Ukrainian voters so eager for new faces? This unforgiving electoral mood reflects the widespread rejection of today's political generation, who stand collectively accused of failing to lead the country away from the institutionalized corruption that helped spark not one but two separate post-Soviet revolutions. The huge sacrifices of the 2014 Revolution of Dignity and subsequent undeclared war with Russia have amplified the sense of frustration with a political class unable to reform itself, while relentlessly negative coverage in the Ukrainian media has helped entrench the idea that the system itself remains fundamentally flawed.
The outlook is equally grim for the bright young things who entered parliament as self-styled reformers in 2014. Having failed to live up to the high expectations generated by their own often lofty rhetoric, most of these so-called Euro-Optimist MPs have either already admitted defeat or now find themselves facing tough battles in single-mandate constituencies. In many ways, they can claim to have paved the way for the likes of Zelenskyy and Vakarchuk by demonstrating that outsiders could enter the political establishment. Nevertheless, failure to consolidate into a coherent political force has been their downfall.
The biggest loser of the election may well be Vladimir Putin, who must look on as pro-Russian political forces in Ukraine struggle to garner a fraction of the support they traditionally enjoyed until 2014. During Ukraine’s last peacetime parliamentary vote seven years ago, pro-Russian forces won over 50 percent of seats and formed a ruling coalition. In the coming elections, the only openly pro-Moscow party with any hope of entering parliament will be lucky to secure a quarter of the 2012 vote. This should be enough to form what will be the second-largest faction in Ukraine’s new parliament, but it represents an extremely modest return when compared to the dominance of old.
Russia’s dwindling electorate still includes millions of Ukrainians. However, the future does not look bright. Indeed, the collapse in support for Kremlin-friendly political parties illustrates Russia's receding influence while highlighting the self-defeating nature of Putin's Ukraine war. The five-year conflict has greatly consolidated Ukraine's nation-building efforts while leaving old slogans of Slavic fraternity in tatters.
In practical terms, the war has also served to disenfranchise voters in occupied Crimea and the Donbas, which had previously served as the twin bastions of Russian electoral support in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Ukraine's remaining pro-Russian voters are disproportionately old. They are gradually being replaced by younger Ukrainians who are more likely to view Russia through the prism of today's conflict than yesterday's shared Soviet past.
Many in Moscow saw Ukraine's 2019 elections as an opportunity to reset relations. They hoped a combination of war weariness and disillusionment with the harsh economic cost of the ongoing confrontation would encourage Ukrainians to back parties promising to rebuild bridges with Russia. This now looks like wishful thinking. Russia's favored candidates did poorly in Ukraine's spring 2019 presidential vote, failing to make the runoff despite the electorate's obvious appetite for change. The results of the upcoming parliamentary vote are now set to repeat this pattern, underlining the decline of Russia as a serious electoral force in Ukrainian politics.
While all eyes focus on the Zelennials, this Kremlin eclipse may actually be the most historically important development of the current election cycle. Ukraine’s future political direction under Team Zelenskyy is far from clear, but it is now increasingly difficult to imagine a return to the days when all roads led to Moscow.
Peter Dickinson is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and publisher of Business Ukraine and Lviv Today magazines. He tweets @Biz_Ukraine_Mag.