Ukraine faces political crisis as newly sworn-in President Zelenskiy dissolves parliament

Ukraine faces political crisis as newly sworn-in President Zelenskiy dissolves parliament
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy dismissed parliament during his inauguration speech.
By bne IntelliNews May 20, 2019

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced the dissolution of the nation's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, immediately after he was sworn in on May 20.

"I dissolve the Verkhovna Rada," Zelenskiy said in his address to the people of Ukraine after he took the oath in the parliament, however, it was unclear exactly when Zelenskiy is going to sign a special presidential decree that makes the order law.

Zelenskiy’s order to dissolve parliament is controversial as it is not entirely clear that he can order the parliament to break up. The statement followed May 17's collapse of the ruling parliamentary coalition as a result of the withdrawal of the People's Front faction, headed by former prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

Many politicians and experts believe that Ukrainian legislation prohibits dissolving the parliament within the next 30 days, during which the Rada should negotiate the creation of a new coalition. At the same time, other regulations prohibit the president to dissolve the parliament after May 27.

During his speech, Zelenskiy also urged the Ukrainian government to step down. "You can take a sheet of paper, take a pen and step aside for those who think about the next generations, not about the next elections. Do it. And people will appreciate that," he said, according to a transcript of his speech.

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Meanwhile, a member of the Petro Poroshenko Bloc faction Ivan Vinnyk believes that Zelenskiy's statement on the termination of the Rada's mandate does not effectively lead to its dissolution, as this requires a formal presidential decree.

"On condition that such a decree is signed and promulgated, perhaps the country will have to prepare for elections, because President Zelenskiy's statement from the rostrum doesn't as such launch an election process," Interfax quoted him as saying the same day. "It can be launched by a presidential decree calling early elections, which is signed and officially published... In this particular case, the discussion about the legitimacy [of Zelenskiy's decision to dissolve the Rada] doesn't have any relation to elections, which might perhaps be held on July 14."

Some lawmakers from the People’s Front also supported Zelenskiy's move, according to local media.

Head of the Samopomich faction Oleh Bereziuk believes that the president's statement on the dissolution of the parliament is "a political and legal decision".

"If someone wants to contest it [...] If a person is democratic, he shouldn't be afraid of elections," Bereziuk told Interfax. At the same time, he admitted that the Rada needs "to see a decree, after which the Central Elections Commission should declare the results in several days". "The early election should be on July 21 or July 27," he said.

A legal battle looms

Zenon Zawada at Kyiv-based brokerage Concnorde Capital wrote in a note on May 20 that having made the declaration, Zelenskiy is likely to sign the presidential decree dismissing the Verkhovna Rada today.

"What remains unclear is whether he has the legal ability to do so, whether he will face an appeal from opposing politicians, and whether a political consensus will emerge to hold early elections, regardless of the legal prospects," he added.

"It was our understanding that not only can he not dismiss parliament for the next 30 days, when the new coalition must be formed after it was dissolved on May 17, but he could not dismiss parliament within six months of the MPs of the newly elected parliament taking their oaths, which would be in December under the current schedule," the expert added in the note.

Zawada added that although Poroshenko Bloc and People’s Front lawmakers have made statements that they are ready for an early vote, they could be "bluffing considering that we are confident they would much prefer for the vote to occur on schedule, on October 27".

"We believe it’s entirely possible that Zelenskiy’s dismissal declaration is merely the start of a legal battle," he added. "On the other hand, considering there’s no parliamentary coalition, a consensus could possibly be reached with single-mandate MPs, as well as the Opposition Bloc, Radical Party and Fatherland factions."

For the children

Zelenskiy also took the opportunity of the speech to strike the policy iron for the first time and indicated he will stick to his liberal European-orientated policy promises made during the election campaign.

In the same speech, the new president urged lawmakers to adopt a number of urgent laws "within the next two months", specifically, on the abolition of parliamentary immunity, and on criminal liability for illegal enrichment. At the top of that Zelenskiy demanded to dismiss the chief of Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) Vasily Gritsak, prosecutor-general Yuri Lutsenko and Defence Minister Stepan Poltorak.

"You [the parliament] will have two months to do this. Do it. Take all the medals for yourself. Those are pretty good points for the early parliamentary elections. I am dissolving the Verkhovna Rada of the eighth convocation," Zelenskiy's told lawmakers assembled in the parliament building to witness the swearing in ceremony.

The policy agenda of the new president remains largely unknown as he gave little detail during his campaign, however, his speech to the parliament was taken by Ukraine’s supporters as positive as he continued to portray himself representing change and uninterested in political power for himself. He again said that his first priority is to stop the war in Donbas and return the prisoners of war home.

“I was asked very often what exactly I am ready to do to stop the war. It’s a strange question. What are you ready to do, Ukrainians, for the lives of your relatives? What? I assure, for our heroes to stop dying, I am ready to do everything. I am certainly not afraid of difficult decisions, I am ready to lose my popularity, my ratings, and — if needed — I am ready to lose this post without hesitation in order to bring peace,” Zelenskiy said switching into Russian for the parts of the speech that were clearly aimed the Kremlin, but also intentionally speaking directly to the Russian population, who have been following the change of power in Ukraine closely.

“We are all Ukrainians whenever we live. Ukrainian isn’t about the passport, it’s about what’s in the heart. I know this for sure from the fighters who defend Ukraine, our heroes — both Ukrainian-speaking and Russian-speaking,” Zelenskiy said.  

The war in Donbas remains the top concern for voters. A poll released the same day as Zelenskiy’s inauguration found that the vast majority said ending the war was their top priority.

"According to Ukrainians, the most pressing issues are the ceasefire in Donbas (88.4%), price level and inflation (84.5%), the return of detained persons [to Ukraine] (84.3%)," a survey by the Social Monitoring Center, the Ukrainian Institute for Social Research and the Rating Social Group found.

The pollsters added that the Ukrainian citizens are least concerned with the potential membership of Ukraine in Nato and the foundation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine – both issues that were at the centre of Poroshenko’s campaign.

Indeed, his speech was reminiscent of US president John F Kennedy’s immortal “Ask not what your country can do for you” speech, calling on both the population and the politicians to put aside selfish self interest and work for the greater good of revitalising the country. Among the extortions Zelenskiy made was a demand to forego the usual practice of putting a portrait of the president on the office wall.

“I would very much like for you to not have my portraits in your offices. No portraits! A president isn’t an icon, or an idol. A president is not a portrait. Put there photographs of your children, instead. And before making any decision, look them in the eyes,” Zelenskiy said in one of the most powerful moments in his speech.

After stopping the war, the second most important priority will be to make Ukraine prosperous – and here he clearly targeted ending the endemic corruption. Despite having no political experience Zelenskiy was swept to power with 73.22% of the vote, thrashing the incumbent Poroshenko who got 24.45% largely because of the failure of the previous administration to do anything about corruption and the falling standards of living.

“My election proves, people are tired of experienced, systemic, inflated politicians, who for 28 years have created a country of opportunities… opportunities for kickbacks, money flows, corruption. We will build a country of other opportunities, where everyone is equal before the law, where there’s a level playing field. But before, people who will serve the nation should come to power,” Zelenskiy said in a swipe not only a his predecessor, but also the parliamentary deputies listening to the speech.

The theme of unity that was his core message during the election campaign was repeated, to which he added a call on all Ukrainians to participate in the transformation of the country.

“Starting today, every one of us bears responsibility for Ukraine, which we will leave to our children. Each of us, in our places, can do something for the development of Ukraine,” Zelenskiy said. “A European country starts with everyone. Yes, we have chosen a (political) direction to Europe, but Europe is not somewhere there, it’s here [Zelenskiy pointed at his head]. And when Europe is here [he pointed at his head], it will come to our country.”

Zelenskiy called on migrant workers to come home to help rebuild the country, but also on the diaspora of some 20mn Ukrainians living long-term in other countries to participate in the resurrection of the country.

“And today I address all the Ukrainians in the world. There are 65 million of us,” Zelenskiy said. “To all who are ready to build a new and successful Ukraine, I will happily give Ukrainian citizenship. You have to be coming to Ukraine like you’re coming home — not visiting as a guest. We are waiting for you. Don’t bring souvenirs from abroad, bring us your knowledge, experience, and values. All of this will help us start a new epoch.”

First 100 days, power to the people

Once the issue of the dissolution of parliament is resolved, Zelenskiy’s team said the president will hold a state audit in the first 100 days of his office.

"In order to perform any transformations, we need to know the human resource, financial resource and time resource. It is recorded in our programme, and we will deal with it in the first 100 days: this is the announcement of the state audit. We need to understand the situation in the state today," Zelenskiy's top advisor Ruslan Stefanchuk said on the 112.Ukraine TV channel at the weekend before the inauguration.

Stefanchuk also suggested the government will hold a census, as Ukraine has not had a census for almost a decade. That could have political repercussions as the number of deputies in the Rada depend on the number of voters in the country, according to Stefanchuk.

He also suggested that Zelenskiy would introduce a system of “direct democracy” that makes use of a “people’s veto” on laws and changes. Zelenskiy made heavy use of social media during his campaign and has already called on the people to suggest policy and appointments to his team via social media.

"The system of people power that we suggest is a system that is called "direct democracy" throughout the world. We studied the experience of the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, Canada, the US, and from each country we tried to take those things that would enable people to feel real control and power in this state," Stefanchuk, who is in charge of reforming state institutions and law-making work, said on the 112.Ukraine TV channel.

Fresh elections

New elections could be held as soon as July, and currently Zelenskiy’s new political party, the Servant of the People, is riding high, according to the polls.

According to results from another joint survey conducted by the Social Monitoring center, Oleksandr Yaremenko Ukrainian Institute for Social Research, and Sociological Group Rating only four parties would currently pass the 5% threshold to enter the new parliament: The Servant of the People, the Opposition Platform– For Life, the Bloc of Petro Poroshenko (BPP) Solidarity and the Batkivshchyna Party of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.

Servant of the People would gain the largest share but would not be able to rule alone and will need to form a coalition. The survey found that 29.5% of respondents support Servant of the People (among those who have decided and say they will definitely vote the share was 39.9%), followed by the Opposition Platform – For Life with 8.1% (10.9%), the BPP "Solidarity" with 7.8% (10.6%), and in fourth place Batkivshchyna with 6.7% (9.1%).

From the possible coalition partners, the survey found that Zelenskiy’s most likely ally would be Tymoshenko, who would almost certainly demand the post of prime minister in return.

Just under a third (29.7%) of respondents said they were positive about the idea of Batkivshchyna uniting with the Servant of the People, while 49.2% responded negatively and 21.1% had difficulty answering the question.

Just over a quarter (28%) said they were positive about the idea that the Servant of the People and the Opposition Platform – For Life could unite, while 49.4% responded negatively and 22.5% had difficulty answering the question.

Zelenskiy has already said that a coalition with Poroshenko’s Solidarity party is not an option.

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