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"Servant" and the Rating: Ukraine’s Zelenskyy Retains Popularity Even a Year Later
25 April, 2020
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President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy holds a bullet during his speech at the general discussion of the 74th session of the UN General Assembly in New York, USA, September 25, 2019. A year ago, on April 21 Zelenskyy won the Ukrainian presidential election and promised to end the war in the Donbas Photo: EPA-EFE / JUSTIN LANE

Volodymyr Zelenskyy became the first president in the history of Ukraine, whose political rating did not fall after a year in power, but, on the contrary, increased – in March 2020, 40.4% of citizens were ready to vote for Zelenskyy.

A year ago, on April 23, 2019, the Central Election Commission officially declared Zelenskyy the winner of the presidential election. In the second round, he defeated incumbent Petro Poroshenko, receiving 73.22% of the vote. But, according to sociologists, it is the first round that should be compared – where Zelenskyy gained 30,24% of the vote.

READ MORE: What Ukrainians Think of Presidential Election Results

“There are only two candidates in the second round. People vote, first and foremost, against the one they dislike more,” says Oleksiy Antypovych, director of Rating Group.

Hromadske looks into how Zelenskyy managed to maintain a high rating throughout the year and how he has made use of it.

The secret to success

"The main reason for the rating's stability is lack of alternatives in terms of new political figures," says Anton Hrushetskyi, deputy executive director of the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS).

READ MORE: "Change of Elites" or The (In)Famous Faces Missing From Ukraine's New Parliament

Indeed, during this year Zelenskyy did not get any new competitors. He continues to compete with the "old politicians" he beat in the 2019 elections, and maintains his lead over them. Petro Poroshenko from European Solidarity, Yuriy Boyko from the Opposition Platform – For Life and Yulia Tymoshenko from Batkivshchyna have a third of his rating – at 8-12%.

Antypovych states that in case Zelenskyy's popularity diminishes, these "old politicians" should not count on the overflow of a large part of his supporters to them. After all, the demand for new faces in society remains.

"In that case, citizens will just start looking for someone new and just as non-systemic," Antypovych says.

Presidential rides

Previous Ukrainian presidents lost a significant part of their popularity after their first year in power.

Poroshenko, who won in the first round in 2014 with 53% of the vote, could count on the support of 32% of voters in May 2015. In the first year, Viktor Yanukovych lost a third of his political rating, while Viktor Yushchenko lost almost half. Leonid Kuchma is the only Ukrainian president who managed to be re-elected. Despite having just 6% of support a year before the end of his first term in office.

Considering the experience of the predecessors, experts predicted a fall in Zelenskyy's popularity almost immediately after the election results were announced. However, this did not happen even a year later.

Zelenskyy's popularity was unaffected neither by the appointment of Andriy Bohdan, who had previously been a lawyer for oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky as his chief-of-staff, nor by the scandals and quarrels of Servant of the People MPs in the parliament, or the lack of “lockups” of corrupt top officials or economic growth promised by the president. Nor even after the calls and promises to Donald Trump did it come crashing down.

READ MORE: Damage Done: The Trump–Ukraine Controversy in Perspective (OP-ED)

It is not yet known whether the latest scandal involving the brother of the new head of the Presidential Office, Andriy Yermak, has influenced the voters' attitude to Zelenskyy – sociologists have not yet released the results of the April polls.

Експрезидент України Петро Порошенко (ліворуч) тисне руку діючому президенту України Володимиру Зеленському під час позачергової сесії Верховної Ради, Київ, 4 березня 2020 року. Депутати зібрались, щоб звільнити Олексія Гончарука з поста прем'єра, призначити Дениса Шмигаля новим очільником уряду та затвердити його склад

Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko (left) shakes hands with incumbent President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy during an extraordinary session of the Verkhovna Rada, Kyiv, March 4, 2020. Deputies gather to release Oleksiy Honcharuk from the post of prime minister, appoint Denys Shmyhal as the new head of government and approve his staff. Photo: EPA-EFE / SERGEY DOLZHENKO

Leverage

During the election campaign, Zelenskyy said he was only going for one term. Therefore, unlike his predecessors, each of whom tried to retain their position afterward, he should have no regard for fluctuations in his political popularity. But he does.

Zelenskyy's political rating is perhaps the main leverage used to influence officials and deputies to make the decisions the president needs. By law, Oleksiy Honcharuk was protected from dismissal for a year after the Cabinet's approval of his action program. However, Honcharuk handed in his resignation notice after he met and spoke with the president.

READ MORE: Ukraine Prime Minister Honcharuk Hands in Resignation

At that point, the government was rapidly losing popularity. In half a year of his work, Ukrainians' confidence in the Cabinet halved (from 57% to 28%). Market reforms that Honcharuk and his ministers tried to pull through were unpopular – above all, the opening of the land market. Polls showed that over 50% of the public did not support this step.

READ MORE: Protest Over Land Reform Near Parliament Leads to Clashes With Police

Appealing to the deputies to release Honcharuk on March 4, Zelenskyy said that the authorities should hear the people for whom there were too few “fresh faces”. The Verkhovna Rada dismissed Honcharuk and extended the time for the land market to open until 2024 (it was initially planned that the market would be operational as early as 2020).

Speaking on the latest episode of the Weekly Wrap-Up, sociologist and associate professor at the Kyiv School of Economics Svitlana Khutka noted that the public is indeed more concerned about the results than who the actual ministers are. 

READ MORE: Weekly Wrap-Up: Promises, Polls, and the “Perfect Call” – One Year Since the Election of Zelenskyy

As a result, the president’s rating grew by 2% in March. However, sociologists explain this, first of all, by the introduction of quarantine.

“During the pandemic, all eyes are on the disease, there is a fear of getting sick, fear of loved ones, and all economic and political problems, all scandals in power have come to the sidelines. At the same time, the state is the only institution that can counteract the epidemic, so trust in the leadership in such conditions is growing,” reasons Antypovych.

In the aftermath of the parliamentary election, similar obedience to the will of the president was demonstrated by the MPs of his party, the Servant of the People, who make up a parliamentary majority of 253 out of 450 available seats. They passed the laws required by the president in “turbo mode”. In addition, at their meetings Zelenskyy tasked the Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada, Dmytro Razumkov with laws and told him deadlines by which they should be adopted.

Sociologist Khutka went as far as saying that "Servant of the People party is a source of frustration" for the public in regards to Zelenskyy’s popularity, which is a far cry from the “turbo-regime monocoalition” that it had started this session's Parliament with.

Колишній прем'єр-міністр України Олексій Гончарук (в центрі) з Раді в день голосування за звільнення його з посади прем'єра, Київ, 4 березня 2020 року

Former Prime Minister of Ukraine Oleksiy Honcharuk (center) in the parliament on the day of voting for his dismissal as Prime Minister, Kyiv, March 4, 2020. Photo: EPA-EFE / SERGEY DOLZHENKO

The soft spot

During the year, Zelenskyy's popularity hasn’t suffered any blows, but the political situation has.

In order to get the MPs to open the land market and adopt the bill on improvement of mechanisms of regulation of banking activity (the so-called "anti-Kolomoisky law", which renders the return of nationalized banks to former owners, including PrivatBank, until 2016 co-owned by oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky impossible), Zelenskyy had to come to the parliament and ask not only his own faction but also the opposition to vote for these motions on March 30. To drive the point home, the president removed the mask during the speech, despite the government making it mandatory in quarantine.

The results of those votes showed: after a year in power, the president can no longer count on the unprecedented support of all his initiatives by parliament. It was only possible to open the land market with the help of the votes of two opposition factions – European Solidarity and Golos, as well as the Dovira deputy group. After all, only 206 "servants of the people" voted in favor of this decision, with 226 required.

READ MORE: Ukrainian Parliament Approves “Anti-Kolomoisky” Bill on First Reading

In the first reading, the "Anti-Kolomoisky law" found even less support among the ruling party MPs – only 198.

The final vote on this law should be a moment of truth in the president's relations with the Verkhovna Rada, Kolomoisky and the International Monetary Fund.

Defeat in the contest for votes of deputies will have consequences not only for the economy of Ukraine, but also for Zelenskyy himself. The money from the future IMF loan is already recorded in the revenue part of the state budget-2020. Therefore, in the event of a vote failure, the budget hole will increase by UAH 250 billion ($9.2 billion). Finance Minister Serhiy Marchenko, however, assures that even in such a case Ukraine will be able to avoid default, but "it will be very difficult".

Sociologists are convinced that economic problems are the main reason that could potentially downgrade the president's rating.

"People can turn a blind eye to corruption scandals and even the war in the Donbas, but not to a hole in their own pockets," says Antypovych.

The very improvement of the economic situation in the country is the main expectation of Zelenskyy's electoral base, which Antypovych describes as “poor people under 40 who live in the central and southern regions of the country”.

But improving the economic situation can be difficult per se – according to a forecast made by the government-surveyed economic experts, Ukraine's gross domestic product could fall by 4.2% in 2020, inflation will rise to 7% and unemployment to 9.4%.

READ MORE: Ukraine’s 2020 Budget Is Changing Due to the Coronavirus

Президент України Володимир Зеленський в залі засідань парламенту під час голосування за закон про банки, який також називають «антиколомойським», Київ, 30 березня 2020 року

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the parliamentary sitting during the vote on the law on banks, also known as the "Anti-Kolomoisky bill", Kyiv, March 30, 2020. Photo: EPA-EFE / STR

The main promise

Zelenskyy also requires high popularity for the fulfillment of his main election promise – to end the Donbas war.

During talks with Zelenskyy's predecessor, Poroshenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin made it a rule to appeal to his low rating (since 2017, Poroshenko's rating did not rise above 22%) as an argument that Poroshenko's position on the Donbas does not find support among citizens of Ukraine.

In an interview with The Guardian on March 8, Zelenskyy announced his proposals: local elections should take place in October 2020 throughout Ukraine, including the Donbas; by that time all troops should be withdrawn from the Donbas.

In the same interview, Zelenskyy established a deadline to implement these proposals: one year since his first and so far only meeting with Putin in the “Normandy format” (on December 7, 2019).

READ MORE: Normandy Format Summit in Paris Reaches Agreement on Three Core Issues

"If not – we need to change the format, strategy and get back to talking when the time is right," Zelenskyy summed up.

In the film "The Year of President Zelenskyy", which aired on the “Ukraine” channel on April 23, the head of state said: "I am confident that we will end this war during my tenure."

Sociologist Khutka, however, feels more pessimistic about the situation, noting that “Russia seems to be moving towards a Transnistria-style situation for the Donbas, whilst Crimea seems to have been pushed to the side by the administration” altogether.

The two presidents were scheduled to meet for the second time in April this year. However, the meeting was in question even before the coronavirus pandemic came into play.

So far, Putin has not accepted the proposal of the President of Ukraine, and insists, first and foremost, on the implementation of the Minsk agreements in a sequence that benefits him: first, to amend the Constitution of Ukraine on the special status of the Donbas, then the elections and only after that – to transfer control over the border to Ukraine. Putin continues to deny the presence of Russian troops in the Donbas.

Зліва направо: президент України Володимир Зеленський, президент Франції Еммануель Макрон та президент Росії Володимир Путін займають свої місця за круглим столом під час зустрічі в «нормандському форматі» в Парижі, Франція, 9 грудня 2019 року

From left to right: President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy, President of France Emmanuel Macron and President of Russia Vladimir Putin take their seats at a roundtable meeting in Paris, France, December 9, 2019. Photo: EPA-EFE / ALEXEI NIKOLSKY

Executive director at the NGO International Renaissance Foundation Oleksandr Sushko notes that Zelenskyy had some initial "psychological success" in connection with foreign leaders, but he wasn't able to translate that into progress which a “naive” position according to him. 


READ MORE: “Zelenskyy Naive in Confidence to Reach Peace With Russia” – Ex-Political Prisoner Mykola Karpiuk

As to the return of Ukrainian captives, in his film, Zelenskyy reiterated what he said previously – "Whilst many Ukrainians may disagree with me, I am sure that I am right: I would hand over 50, 100 Berkut officers for one Ukrainian military." He also noted that three exchanges of detained persons had already taken place under his presidency.

Film highlights

Naturally, the head of state also drew attention to some of the achievements over the past year.

As well as speaking of the already implemented the “Diia” app which allows Ukrainians to have their documents – such as the ID, driving license and car registration documents – in the smartphone, as part of the announced “digital state” plan, he mentioned the ambitious idea of implementing e-voting. 

Another grand plan is the creation of a national airline that would order from the Ukrainian Antonov design bureau and provide for numerous vacancies.

READ MORE: Not All Heroes Wear Capes, Some Have Wings: Ukraine's Mriya Plane Delivers Coronavirus Aid

At the same time, Zelenskyy criticized the state of Ukrainian healthcare, saying that the country was not prepared to face the coronavirus pandemic largely due to the failing health reform, initiated by the former acting health minister Ulana Suprun.

Speaking at a web event organized by the Ukrainian Institute London, Suprun herself earlier said “[healthcare] is not in the priority for this government and not in the priority for this President until it was thrown at them because of the pandemic that’s happening”. Whilst she believes 3.5% of the budget allocated to health is measly, she did see some positivity in last week’s votings in the parliament where the ministry of health’s funding was increased by 13% and national health service’s funding was increased by 22%.

READ MORE: Zelenskyy Didn’t Care About Healthcare Until Coronavirus Hit Ukraine - Ex-Health Minister Ulana Suprun

Judiciary is another area Zelenskyy could not omit after his promise to reboot the system. He once again stood by his decision to dismiss the “ineffective” prosecutor general Rouslan Riaboshapka in March and expressed his readiness to do the same if Irina Venediktova does live up to his expectations.

READ MORE: The Legacy Left by Former Prosecutor General Rouslan Riaboshapka