ZELENSKIY’S SERVANT OF THE PEOPLE PARTY VOWS ‘RADICAL CHANGES’
By Donnelly McCleland
The party of Ukraine’s new President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has kept a strong lead ahead of a parliamentary election due on 21 July, an opinion poll showed on Monday [10 June]. The survey by KIIS research body showed the former television comedian’s equally new party, Servant of the People, on 34.4 percent, below previous readings by the Reiting pollster but still well ahead of the crowded field of 16 parties. After taking office last month, Zelenskiy dismissed the parliament still dominated by loyalists of his defeated predecessor. Servant of the People has no lawmakers in the outgoing legislature and is campaigning on a pro-European and anti-corruption ticket. The KIIS poll put Opposition Platform in second place on 8.4 percent, and European Solidarity – the party of Zelenskiy’s predecessor Petro Poroshenko – third on 5.8 percent. (Reuters)
First act: dissolve parliament
Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who won a landslide victory in Ukraine’s presidential election, faced a hostile parliament dominated by former President Petro Poroshenko’s supporters when he came to power. A political novice with no support within the cabinet, his first act was to dissolve parliament and call for snap elections in his inaugural speech on 20 May. By disbanding the chamber and calling early elections in July (rather than October), the new head of state hopes to win the support he needs to tackle numerous challenges, including corruption (tied to a struggling economy) and the conflict with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Recent polls seem to indicate that Mr Zelenskiy’s party, Servant of the People (formed in 2018 and named after the TV series he starred in since 2015, about a history teach who becomes president), is in a commanding lead.
A good showing in next month’s parliamentary elections would cement Mr Zelenskiy’s meteoric rise and upend Ukrainian politics. His party recently launched its manifesto that promises to clamp down on corruption, move state services online and raise defence spending above 5% of the GDP. It also pledged to push through the legislation needed to move closer to the European Union and to expand cooperation with NATO.
First visit to frontline
On 27 May, Mr Zelenskiy made his first visit to the frontline of the war in eastern Ukraine with Russia-backed separatists, which has killed an estimated 13,000 people. Mr Zelenskiy donned a bulletproof helmet and vest over his business clothes (unlike his predecessor who preferred to wear military camouflage fatigues on his frequent visits to the frontline) and met with Ukrainian troops in the war-torn towns of Stanytsia Luhanska and Shchastya in the Luhansk region. He is reported to have spoken with soldiers about living conditions, food quality, equipment, housing, social benefits, and the staffing of units. He again stressed that bringing the war to an end (which entered its sixth year in April) was among his top priorities and that he is prepared to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in order to do so.
First foreign visit
Mr Zelenskiy reiterated Ukraine’s goal of one day joining the EU and the NATO alliance, after his election raised doubts on the future direction of the country. During his first foreign trip to Brussels on 4-5 June, Mr Zelenskiy told reporters: “The strategic course of Ukraine to achieve fully-fledged membership in the EU and NATO, it is evidenced in the Constitution, and remains unchanged. This the priority of our foreign policy.” It appears that Mr Zelenskiy aimed to use his visit to set the foreign policy tone for his five-year term and to demonstrate to wary Western partners that Ukraine is serious about European and Euro-Atlantic integration. Following his talk with European Council President Donald Tusk, he thanked the EU for its “unwavering support” and called for the “strengthening of sanctions [on Russia] to get peace back in Ukraine”. Mr Tusk pointed out that by making his first foreign presidential trip to the EU and NATO headquarters, Mr Zelenskiy was sending “a strong and important signal”. He confirmed that the EU “will always be determined to help Ukraine strengthen its democracy and the rule of law, fight corruption, stabilise its economy, and pursue energy sector reforms”, adding that the bloc will remain “committed to Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity”.
He also pointed out that Ukraine was ready to negotiate with Russia and fully implement the Minsk agreement. Brokered by France and Germany between Ukraine and Russia, the Minsk agreement ended major combat in eastern Ukraine in 2015, although deadly clashes still regularly occur. Ukraine and pro-Moscow separatists accuse each other of violating the truce.
FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
During his inaugural address, Mr Zelenskiy said: “I’m ready to lose my popularity and, if necessary, I’m ready to lose my post so that we have peace.” He also challenged members of parliament to do the right thing and waive their right to immunity from prosecution and demonstrate an earnest intention to eradicate the scourge of corruption. Mr Zelenskiy has inherited an unenviable situation both domestically and internationally, but his ‘everyman’ persona and ‘outsider’ position has him possibly best placed to achieve any kind of shift in both situations of peacebuilding and corruption-busting. From a Biblical perspective, these are both noble endeavours, but given the fallen nature of human beings, and the almost inevitable allure of power, he faces incredibly tough odds.
Added to these challenges is a deeply divided institutional religious landscape where the Ukraine Orthodox Church has broken away from the Moscow Patriarchate. Repeated statements by former President Petro Poroshenko and leaders of the Ukrainian Church that property belonging to the Moscow Patriarchate would be seized provoked fears that the war in the eastern parts of Ukraine could escalate into a religious war fought in the heart of the country. Mr Zelenskiy is now seen by many as Ukraine’s best chance for reducing Church tension, and promoting dialogue.
Born into a Jewish family, Mr Zelenskiy is also an ‘outsider’ on the Church question. He has not revealed much about his own religious beliefs and generally restricts religious expression to broad statements, famously responding to a Facebook comment about his absence at Easter services with the words: “Don’t look for me in Church, look for God.”
Mr Zelenskiy is at least right in this respect: Ukrainians cannot look to man to fix all the challenges they face – they need to look to the Lord to achieve the ‘impossible’. Mr Zelenskiy is going to need the Lord’s help to eradicate deep-rooted corruption and in all peace-making efforts, if they are to last. Mr Zelenskiy’s bold and refreshing approach brings a whole new dimension to Ukrainian politics and offers a sense of hope that the nation can possibly break free from the debilitating effects of years of institutional corruption and an internal war.
- For godly wisdom as Mr Zelenskiy tackles tough issues
- For breakthrough in peace-making efforts
- For Ukrainian believers to be active ‘change-makers’ in their nation