Zelenskyy’s massive mandate has potential for both reform and abuse

Marco Levytsky, NP-UN Editorial Writer.

Final results of the July 21 elections to the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine and media reports on the single-mandate constituencies give President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s “Servant of the People” Party an absolute majority of 254 out of the 424 active seats in Ukraine’s parliament. (26 of the total 450 Rada seats are vacant as they represent single-mandate constituencies in Crimea and Donbas that are under Russian occupation.)

This result is unprecedented in the brief history of independent Ukraine, where no one party has ever been able to win an absolute majority, relying instead on forming coalitions with other blocs.

As such, it gives Zelenskyy a stronger electoral mandate than any other president ever managed to achieve, and with it – much more power. In fact, with about 46 independents and 10 minor party deputies elected, and considering the historic tendencies of independent deputies in Ukraine to flock to the gravy train of the party of power, Zelenskyy could conceivably put together a constitutional majority of 302 votes without relying on any of the other four major parties in parliament. This gives him a stranglehold on power with very few checks and balances in the way.

As he obtained his super majority on a promise to clean up the endemic corruption that has plagued the country since independence, this gives him free rein to actually do something. But it is also fraught with danger. As the old saying goes: Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Early signs of what we may expect from a Zelenskyy presidency and parliamentary mandate are mixed. Among some of the positive indicators are the two individuals who appear to be the main contenders for the position of prime minister – Aivaras Abromavičius, who served briefly as economy minister under former President Petro Poroshenko, and Oleksandr Danylyuk, a former finance minister.

A liberal-minded native of Lithuania, Abromavičius served as economy minister midway through Poroshenko’s administration. He resigned, however, in February 2016, issuing a scathing rebuke of Poroshenko and his business allies for not doing more to root out corrupt business deals and conflicts of interest.

Danylyuk served as finance minister until June 2018, when he was pushed out by then-Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, also after a clash over corruption. As with Abromavičius, he pulled no punches with the announcement of his departure, saying “I will not sell out my country.” Another positive sign is the decision to open up negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a new program with an emphasis on attracting foreign investment, selling state-owned assets, and lifting the ban on the sale of farmland.

Yet several worrisome items remain. One of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress’ largest constituents, the League of Ukrainian Canadians, expressed serous reservations about Zelenskyy following a meeting he held with representatives of the Ukrainian Canadian community during his July 1-3 visit to Toronto. Their particular concerns were that “during his trip, President Zelenskyy made scant reference to Russia’s designs on Ukraine, even to identify Russia as the aggressor country.”

“His reluctance to state his administration’s national security and defense policies, including his position on pending legislation to reform the defense and security sectors is no less disturbing… We also are deeply concerned about President Zelenskyy’s reluctance to speak clearly about his administration’s commitment to restore Ukrainian sovereignty in Donbas and Crimea on Ukrainian terms,” stated LUC President Roman Medyk, and Managing Director Orest Steciw, in a July 5 release. What also disturbed them was “that we did not hear from the new president a commitment to complete the goals set out by the Revolution of Dignity. Instead, at the events in Toronto we heard high ranking foreign government officials from Europe, the U.S., and Canada make more references to the goals and achievements of the Revolution of Dignity than President Zelenskyy or his delegation.”

Of even greater concern is Zelenskyy’s July 11 proposal to expand Ukraine’s law on lustration to include everyone who held a government post between February 23, 2014, and May 19, 2019. The intention of the current lustration law was aimed at preventing those who held office under the government of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych from continuing to do so. The Yanukovych regime was responsible for defrauding the Ukrainian state, human rights abuses and crimes against the people of Ukraine, including mass shootings of peaceful protestors which resulted in the murder of 100 Ukrainian citizens that are today revered as the “Heavenly Hundred”. To compare the Yanukovych regime with the Poroshenko administration is absolutely wrong.

“One cannot compare the actions of President Poroshenko, the government led by Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman and Chairman of Ukraine’s Parliament Andriy Parubiy to the criminal, authoritarian and kleptocratic regime of Viktor Yanukovych,” said Ukrainian World Congress President Paul Grod. “Although not perfect, the post-Maidan Government of Ukraine should be congratulated for defending Ukraine against Russia’s military invasion, rescuing the economy from near-collapse and putting Ukraine on a clear path to reform and pro-Euro-Atlantic trajectory.”

What’s more, this particular idea appears to have originated with Andriy Portnov, a former deputy head of the Yanukovych administration who, like Yanukovych and some other officials – fled the country as the Euromaidan protests gathered force in early 2014, fearing prosecution.

Not only was this proposal condemned by the diaspora, but by all G7 ambassadors to Ukraine, who stated: “Electoral change and political rotation are the norm in democracy. Indiscriminate bans on all participants in executive and legislative governance are not. Since 2014, we have been appreciative of reform progress achieved in some important areas. While it is right to hold those guilty of abusing their office to account, the situation in Ukraine today is, in our conviction, not comparable to that after the Revolution of Dignity.”

We have not heard any more about this proposal since then, so maybe Zelenskyy has smartened up. But even so, he should never have even considered such a revanchist proposal – especially from someone like Portnov who is exactly the kind of individual the original lustration law was aimed at.

Therefore, while we accept the democratic decision of the people of Ukraine and welcome this unique opportunity to finally tackle Ukraine’s endemic corruption, we must also remain vigilant against any abuse of power that such a massive mandate may provide temptation for.