Ukraine’s New President Isn't Laughing Now

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Ukraine’s comedian-turned-president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is finding out how determined the country’s elite is to prevent him from governing. He’s facing a rearguard action to stop him disbanding parliament and calling an early election his supporters stand to win.

On Friday, a key member of the country’s ruling coalition pulled out, creating months of chaos and legal wrangling to tie Zelenskiy’s hands.

This will be the first big test for the TV personality and anti-establishment rabble-rouser who beat Petro Poroshenko by a landslide last month. If Zelenskiy prevails, the different, non-nationalist, anti-corruption kind of populism that is emerging in eastern Europe can start to demonstrate its viability – and, as likely as not, its limitations.

In Ukraine, the president has considerable powers, particularly in security, defense and foreign policy, but parliament picks the prime minister and controls the key cabinet appointments. Without a majority in the legislature, he only has limited influence on the key areas of domestic policy that will determine the success or failure of his populist project.

Zelenskiy, who ran an ingenious, innovative, social media-based campaign, has the same kind of momentum that allowed French President Emmanuel Macron to establish control of the parliament soon after his election.

Like Macron, Zelenskiy is fielding a startup party, called Servant of the People after television series in which he played a schoolteacher accidentally elected leader of Ukraine. The opinion polls, which were surprisingly accurate ahead of the presidential election, look promising. The group looks set to win about 30 percent of the vote, a plurality. Zelenskiy’s chances of forming a governing coalition are strong.

He could squander this advantage, though, if he waited for the scheduled election on October 27. His best chance is to call an early vote. But Ukraine’s constitution only allows for that if the parliamentary parties fail to form a coalition for at least 30 days (and in two other, even less likely, scenarios) and certainly no later than six months before a scheduled election.

The Popular Front, which pulled out of the governing coalition on Friday, is trying to use these rules to keep parliament alive until its term expires. According to different interpretations of Ukrainian law, the cut-off date for dissolution is either May 27 or June 14, and both will pass before the 30-day deadline for coalition talks runs out.

The Popular Front, whose key supporters include Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, has little to lose. Powerful before the election, it no longer registers in the polls. Its interest lies in giving loyalists a few more months in powerful and potentially lucrative offices as well as time to find a political bandwagon to jump on. Friday’s move should also give the group a good negotiating position with Poroshenko’s party, which is likely to become the main opposition in parliament.

But these maneuvers won’t necessarily work. One could argue that the ruling coalition formed after the 2014 election fell apart in 2016, when two parties left it and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk resigned. Since then, Volodymyr Hroisman’s cabinet has looked like a minority government: It has struggled to secure parliamentary majorities for its proposals. Zelenskiy could demand that the coordinators of this coalition prove that it really exists by demanding a signed list of members’ names.

Even without the Popular Front’s ploys, Zelenskiy would have needed to claim that the country was without a governing coalition in any decision to dissolve parliament.

His team has been pushing for early elections, and various plans to that effect have been discussed internally. The question is whether Zelenskiy, whose inauguration has been set for May 20, is prepared to play hardball and ignore the legislators’ attempts to foil him. A video posted on his Facebook page on May 10 indicates he could. In it, he called on legislators to speed up their decision on his inauguration date and stop clinging to their mandates. He also likened Poroshenko, who has rushed to make last-minute military and judicial appointments, to a hotel guest still trying to raid the buffet long after they are supposed to have checked out.

If Zelenskiy moves to dismiss parliament immediately after his inauguration, that would show he is serious, at least for now, about draining the Kiev swamp. But he will be watched closely for signs of excessive loyalty to oligarch and business partner Igor Kolomoisky, who returned to Ukraine earlier this week after he moved to Israel amid allegations the businessman plundered the bank he owned and which Ukraine later nationalized. 

Zelenskiy has demonstrated he can run strong campaigns and win elections. He has yet to prove his ability to govern and to pick incorruptible people for the job of dismantling Ukraine’s rotten establishment, all while Russian President Vladimir Putin maintains military and economic pressure on Kiev.

The newbie president won’t be able to face these tests until late fall – unless he plucks up the courage to move against the recalcitrant parliament immediately after his inauguration.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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