Zelensky’s fall from grace

Zelensky’s fall from grace

After taking the Ukrainian political stage by storm, President Volodymyr Zelensky and his Servant of the People party faced off and lost to “mayoral” parties in the October 2020 local elections. Zelensky, falling short of providing Ukraine with the vigorous reformist policy he promised in his presidential campaign, has been gradually losing support from the public, threatening his and his party’s future in Ukrainian politics.

Populism versus reforms

President Zelensky’s Servant of the People party suffered significant setbacks in the 2020 Ukrainian local elections, manifesting the decline of Zelensky’s popularity and the nation’s waning trust in the ruling government. A political novice who unexpectedly came to power with a landslide victory in the 2019 presidential election, Zelensky vowed to ensure economic prosperity, anti-corruption reforms and a quick resolution to the war in Donbass. Despite early signs of progress, the newly elected President delivered no real reforms, and failed to handle relations with local leaders amid the global coronavirus pandemic. Zelensky’s ambitions appear to be colliding with his populist rhetoric, while his willingness to succumb to pressure from oligarchs is gradually losing him the trust of Ukrainians and the West.

Aftermath of the election triumph

The Servant of the People party, which won a majority in the parliamentary elections in 2019, as well as President Zelensky, initially exhibited signs of real commitment to their reformist platforms. Ukraine’s gross domestic product grew by 3.5 percent last year, while anti-corruption efforts appeared to be a priority for the new ruling elite. In 2019 the Verkhovnaya Rada (Ukrainian Parliament) passed an anti-corruption bill criminalising illegal state official enrichment practices. The newly formed government, meanwhile, restored anti-corruption institutions. Furthermore, although he did not achieve a breakthrough in negotiations with Russia during the 2019 Normandy Summit, President Zelensky succeeded in securing a large prisoner exchange with the Kremlin, as well as another ceasefire agreement.

Initial indications of progress were overshadowed by Zelensky’s decision to replace the reformist ministerial cabinet and other critical state officials with controversial figures in March 2020. He appointed Andriy Yermak as head of the Presidential Administration, who has alleged connections to Russia. His new ministers are also rumored to have ties with former Ukrainian President Yanukovych, whose decision to suspend implementation of the association agreement between Ukraine and the EU led to the 2013-2014 Euromaidan revolution, and Viktor Medvedchuk, the leader of the pro-Russian Opposition Platform-for Life (OPFL). The biggest controversy, however, was his firing of prosecutor general Ruslan Ryaboshapka, favoured by Western countries because of his anti-corruption efforts and drive for reform. Zelensky has also allegedly experienced pressure from Ukrainian oligarchs such as Ihor Kolomoisky, who owns the TV channel that aired his show, and who strives to regain control over the now nationalised PrivatBank, the largest retail bank in Ukraine.

Furthermore, issues of ideological clarity, lack of reform progress and internal fragmentation have seriously damaged Servant of the People’s political position. The party has struggled to identify its core ideology, with notions of libertarianism and centrism put forth. In addition, Zelensky’s party, which initially voted with reformist parties such as Holos and Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity, has recently voted against reforms with OPFL. This ambiguity and lack of direction or concrete results have led to a drop of approval for both Zelensky and Servant of the People, with criticism from pro-Kremlin and pro-Western powers alike. The party’s rating has fallen to 28 percent, while 56 percent of the Ukrainian public is dissatisfied with Zelensky, although both still have higher ratings than the opposition.

Local wins for local players

Servant of the People’s declining popularity has contrasted with the success of its “mayoral” counterparts in the recent local elections, where 661 independent candidates won mandates in comparison to the 225 gained by Zelensky’s party. Notably, Servant of the People won only in two major cities and lost in the President’s hometown. Not only did the President lose the popularity test to local strongmen, but he also failed to handle tensions between the central government and local government officials. In the midst of the nationwide lockdown in Ukraine, Zelensky openly confronted Anatoly Bondarenko, the mayor of Cherkasy, who defied orders and re-opened restaurants and ships in the town. While Bondarenko received the support of his regional counterparts, Zelensky gave the impression of disregarding local government authority, which has been strengthening since decentralisation reforms began in 2014. The reforms give local leaders the power to handle budgets, investment and taxes more freely and are seen as one of the most successful democratic outcomes of the Euromaidan revolution. Therefore, the 2020 local elections were a chance not only for Servant of the People to expand its political influence, but also for Zelensky to handle future local disobedience.

A noteworthy feature of the elections was Ukraine’s well-functioning democracy, as local incumbents secured their posts and only a few won their mandates without run-offs.  National parties did not enjoy as much support in 2020 – Servant of the People’s poor results were followed by similar ones for opposition parties. Nevertheless, these elections have also been influenced by the global coronavirus pandemic, as voter turnout was very low in comparison to previous local elections in 2015, mainly due to health concerns and a demoralised electorate.


President Volodymyr Zelensky’s ambitions of achieving radical change in Ukraine seem to be overshadowed by his attempt to balance different interest groups in the country, in the face of socioeconomic uncertainty and a distrustful nation. His recent failure to gain the support of local districts further exhibits Zelensky and his party’s decline and their inability to deliver meaningful political change in Ukraine. Cooperation rather than competition between local actors and the central government, an end to the war in Donbass, as well as land, infrastructure and anti-corruption reforms are sorely needed for the future prosperity of Ukraine. As Servant of the People’s majority erodes in the Verkhovnaya Rada and there is a possibility that the opposition will call for new parliamentary elections, Zelensky’s position as Ukraine’s powerbroker will continue to be challenged.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Boryana Saragerova

Boryana Saragerova received a MA in Terrorism, Security & Society from King’s College London. She has previously attained a BA degree in International Relations from Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”. Boryana specialises in international affairs, and political instability and international security, namely terrorism and extremism, insurgencies, regional and global conflicts and has expertise in Public and Private International Law. She has worked on a diverse set of topics from the prevention of religion-motivated violence in Bangladesh, during the 64th International Student Conference in Tokyo, Japan to bilateral and multilateral relations in South-Eastern Europe during her internship at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Bulgaria.