Ukraine's Zelensky Eyes Parliament Makeover in Early Polls


Volodymyr Zelensky, a 41-year-old comedian with no political experience, shocked Ukraine three months ago, becoming the country's youngest ever post-Soviet leader.

Now he wants to replicate his unorthodox success at this month's parliamentary election.

Zelensky's newly-established "Servant of the People" party is now Ukraine's most popular political movement according to opinion polls, which tip it to win parliamentary elections on July 21.

Forty-seven percent of Ukrainians who have already decided on their choice said they would support Zelensky's party, indicated a poll by the Rating Group.

Zelensky has promoted himself as an anti-establishment candidate and has said he doesn't want current or former lawmakers standing for his party, named after a sitcom in which he starred.

He instead invited ordinary Ukrainians to run for his party and more than 30 members of the public were eventually selected.

"The top priority is to cleanse the country of corruption, looting, bribery and hypocrites," the party says on its website.

The rise of Zelensky and his party has been widely viewed as a rejection of Ukraine's previous political elite for failing to revive the economy, root out corruption, and end the conflict with Russian-backed separatists that began in 2014 after a popular uprising ousted a pro-Moscow president.

- Longing for change -

The ballot is expected to dramatically change the composition of the parliament up to now dominated by the party of Zelensky's predecessor and rival Petro Poroshenko.

"These will be absolutely new people. On the one hand, that is certainly the renewal that voters are longing for," Iryna Bekeshkina, director of the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, told AFP.

"On the other hand, this is dangerous. These people do not have the necessary qualifications for jobs in politics."

The stakes are high. Zelensky must share power with parliament, which will nominate a prime minister and form a government.

Parliamentary elections had been set to take place in October but Zelensky called early polls to cement his grip on power. 

Of more than 20 parties fielding candidates, only a handful are predicted to win seats.

In a boon for the Kremlin, a pro-Moscow party called "Opposition Platform–For Life" is now the second most popular in opinion polls, with up to 14 percent of voters saying they would vote for it.

Viktor Medvedchuk, a member of the party who has claimed Russian President Vladimir Putin is his daughter's godfather, could return to parliament after a long absence.

"Pro-Russian forces will increase their presence by around 20 to 30 lawmakers," said political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko, adding however their influence would remain limited.

Poroshenko's party -- now renamed European Solidarity after a makeover -- and the party of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko have just nine and six percent support respectively.

Another anti-establishment politician, rock star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, has also thrown his hat into the ring and his recently-launched party Golos (Voice) is growing in popularity and may also enter parliament.

Under current legislation, 225 of the country's 424 lawmakers are elected via party lists. The rest are selected directly in single-member districts.

The size of Servant of the People's likely win remains unclear but Zelensky's party is expected to form the basis of a new parliamentary coalition.

- Change trumps experience - 

According to a survey published by the International Republican Institute, 63 percent of Ukrainians said they preferred a party that represents "a new generation of politicians".

Just 24 percent said a party's experience in politics and governance mattered to them.

Svitlana Kholon, a resident of the southeastern city of Zaporizhzhya, admitted things may get complicated if a lot of neophytes got into parliament.

"When young people begin any work it's difficult -- they have no experience," she said.

Oleksandr Sushko, executive director at the International Renaissance Foundation, did not rule out a degree of "chaos" in the new legislature.

The new makeup could "guarantee neither reforms nor quality politics," he said, adding that if the new legislature discredits itself the consequences would be far-reaching.

"Society will simply lose hope."