Ukraine’s Election Indicates A Strengthening Democracy

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 5, May 2019

Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, left, speaks as Volodymyr Zelenskiy, comic and presidential candidate, listens during a debate at the Kiev Stadium in Kiev, Ukraine, on April 19, 2019. The two candidates for Ukraine’s presidency squared off in a long-awaited and often bad-tempered debate, their last chance to sway opinion before the April 21 runoff, which Zelenskiy won. Source: Presidential Administration of Ukraine.

Robert T. Person
United States Military Academy

With Ukraine’s 2019 presidential campaign now complete, the country finds itself – as it has on numerous occasions in the last 15 years – at a historic crossroads.  Actor-comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s stunning landslide victory over incumbent president Petro Poroshenko by a margin of 73.2 percent to 24.4 percent presents challenges and opportunities with far-reaching implications for Ukraine, Russia, the European Union, and the United States.  On the domestic front, another peaceful transition of power through democratic elections indicates that Ukrainian democracy – though far from perfect – is alive and gaining strength.  In public comments Zelenskiy has reaffirmed Ukraine’s commitment to democratic rule, drawing a sharp contrast with Russia’s authoritarian politics.  On the foreign policy front, he has pledged to stand up to Russia and continue Ukraine’s path to NATO membership, even while expressing a willingness to “negotiate with the devil” to bring the war in Eastern Ukraine to an end.   This is something the prior president, Petro Poroshenko, refused to do, though Zelenskiy’s chances of breaking the stalemate in the Donbas remain slim.  Though it is too early to tell what the future holds for the new Ukrainian president and the country he leads, there can be little doubt that Ukraine will continue to be a key zone of strategic competition – and likely conflict – in Eastern Europe, much as it has been for the last five years.

Throw the bums out: Zelenskiy and the anti-Poroshenko vote

The resounding rebuke of President Poroshenko by Ukrainian voters is best understood as just that – a deliberate protest vote against the incumbent more so than a positive affirmation of the challenger’s platform or policy position.  Prior to the election, evidence had been mounting in the form of dismal polling numbers that Ukrainians had turned their backs on Poroshenko.  Generally attributed to frustration with the lack of progress on economic reforms and anti-corruption efforts, as well as fatigue associated with Ukraine’s not-so-frozen conflict in the Donbas, Poroshenko’s defeat in the second round, along with the rejection of former prime minister and leader of the Orange Revolution Yulia Tymoshenko in the first round, revealed a Ukrainian electorate hungry for a political outsider.  Not even Poroshenko’s campaign rallying cry of “Army! Language! Faith!” (the latter referring to Poroshenko’s successful advocacy for an autonomous Ukrainian Orthodox Church in 2018) could win the incumbent a second-round majority in any region of Ukraine except Lviv Oblast, the historic cradle of Ukrainian nationalism.

Further supporting the claim that Ukraine’s vote for Zelenskiy was largely a protest vote against Poroshenko (and political insiders in general) is the fact that Zelenskiy ran a campaign that was mostly bereft of specific policy positions and proposals, relying instead on a somewhat vague commitment to reform and a promise to bring the war in Eastern Ukraine to an end.  In other words, Zelenskiy didn’t offer much in the way of specifics that Ukrainians could vote for.  In fact, Zelenskiy’s main credential to serve as President of Ukraine was that he played one on television: the popular comedy “Servant of the People” (whose theme song Zelenskiy coopted for his campaign) chronicles the adventures of a high school teacher unexpectedly thrust into the Ukrainian presidency after an anti-corruption rant captured on video goes viral.  At the very least, Ukrainian voters could picture Zelenskiy in the role of swamp drainer in-chief, even if he lacked specifics of how to tackle Ukraine’s notoriously corrupt political-economic nexus.

The strength of Ukrainian democracy

In most respects, Zelenskiy’s victory at the polls – and Poroshenko’s gracious concession – signals that Ukrainian democracy is alive and well 28 years after its founding.  When one considers the fate that democracy has suffered in the non-Baltic former Soviet states (Russia, first and foremost), Ukraine’s ability to kindle the flickering flame of democracy seems as impressive as it is improbable.  To be sure, Ukrainian politics are messy, notoriously corrupt, dominated by oligarchic interests, and punctuated by two popular uprisings in the last fifteen years.  But against all odds, Ukrainian democracy has survived – now on multiple occasions – a critical test that many political scientists apply to determine whether a country meets the basic requirements of electoral democracy.

Political scientist Adam Przeworski, coauthor of one of the most influential books on democracy in political science, pithily describes democracy as “a regime in which incumbents lose elections and leave office if they do.”  Though not the sole metric operationalizing democracy, Przeworksi’s influential dataset codes regimes as democracies only if an incumbent has lost an election that results in alternation of power.  This alternation rule is similar to Samuel Huntington’s famous “two turnover test” that considered democracy to be consolidated if two such alternations of power had taken place: incumbents were replaced by challengers, who were themselves eventually replaced by new challengers at the ballot box.  The intuition for these coding rules and their implication for democratic survival is simple: democracy is strong and healthy when incumbents respect the legitimacy of democratic institutions (particularly electoral institutions), even when they dislike the outcome (losing an election).  As such, elections themselves may not be the “magic moment” of democracy; rather, it is the moment at which the defeated incumbent hands over the keys to the presidential residence to the victorious challenger – rather than calling in the military to arrest him.

In this respect, Ukraine has passed the “alternation test” on multiple occasions since gaining independence, including twice in the last decade: in 2010 when incumbent Viktor Yushchenko lost to his Orange Revolution nemesis, Viktor Yanukovych; and again in the present election when Poroshenko accepted his loss to Zelenskiy.  By Przeworski and Huntington’s standards, Ukrainian democracy  –  however bumpy – is fundamentally sound: voters express their preferences and incumbents respect the outcomes of elections and refrain from using extra-constitutional means to retain power.  Unlike in Russia, elections in Ukraine are therefore meaningful exercises in democracy.

…and the weakness of Ukrainian democracy

On the other hand, not all observers share such a positive assessment of the health of Ukrainian democracy, characterizing the country’s political system as “pluralism by default” – a system so fragmented and dysfunctional that no aspiring autocrats can successfully consolidate power and establish an institutionalized authoritarian regime.  Similarly, one must have mixed feelings about the legacy of Ukraine’s two popular revolutions – the Orange Revolution of 2004-5 and the Maidan “revolution of dignity” of 2014 – on the health of Ukrainian democracy.  While both revolutions were waged as defenses of democratic principles and resulted in the removal of leaders with authoritarian tendencies, neither event can be considered the orderly, predictable transfer of power through free elections.  Ukrainian democracy may have been strengthened by the eviction of Yanukovych in 2014, but there’s little doubt that it would be even stronger had he been removed at the ballot box as Poroshenko was.  Each peaceful handover of power through democratic means helps institutionalize and consolidate democracy in a way that popular revolutions do not.

In a similar vein, it is also worth remembering that Ukraine has only reelected a leader once in its post-Soviet existence as an independent country: Leonid Kuchma in 1999 (having himself defeated incumbent Leonid Kravchuk in 1994).  Though not incorporated into formal coding criteria for democratic regimes, it seems obvious that a population’s willingness to at least occasionally reelect an incumbent is also a sign of a healthy democracy if one can assume free and fair elections.  If an anti-incumbent sentiment dominates every electoral cycle (as it seems to in Ukraine), this should serve as a red flag warning for serious systemic questions about governance, corruption, and regime legitimacy.  If citizens believe that nothing ever changes when they “throw the bums out” and that elections simply replace one set of corrupt politicians with another, at what point will citizens lose their faith in democratic institutions as being the “most appropriate” or “legitimate”  institutions for regulating political power in the country?  Such conditions are ripe for the emergence of political outsiders and novices, as in Zelenskiy’s case.  Worse yet, they may be prone to the appearance of authoritarian populists whose commitment to democratic values and institutions is lacking.

Keeping the boat afloat while draining the swamp

Though populist in his campaign promises, Zelenskiy did not conduct the kind of xenophobic or ethno-nationalist-based campaign that might raise fears of an illiberal streak.  Indeed, the fact that he won in every region of Ukraine except Lviv in the second round indicates that his was a candidacy that ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians alike could get behind. But, though an anti-corruption platform may have played well with voters, Zelenskiy will soon find out that the swamp of Ukrainian corruption is extraordinarily deep and wide – in short, there’s a lot of muck to drain.  Though perhaps well intentioned, it is unlikely that he’ll find much success in cleaning up a system where corruption is woven throughout from top to bottom.  Further complicating the situation is the perception by many Ukrainians that Zelenskiy himself may be part of the ritualistic “exchanging of the oligarchs” owing to his close relationship with oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky who is reportedly under investigation by the FBI for economic crimes.  Kolomoisky’s patronage of Zelenskiy (he owns the television network that airs Zelenskiy’s show) has thus raised concern that Ukraine may have just substituted one oligarch – Ukraine’s “candy king” Petro Poroshenko – for another one.

Assuming Zelenskiy’s anti-corruption stance is genuine, the challenge of reforming Ukraine’s political institutions – all while governing day to day, fighting an insurgency, and living next to an aggressive power constantly seeking to destabilize Ukraine — would be a tall order for even the most skilled statesmen.  Ukrainian voters’ history of disillusionment with failed reformers and disappointing democrats suggests that in five years when Zelenskiy’s term is up, he too will be swept aside like the tarnished heroes Yushchenko and Poroshenko before him.

Volodymyr vs. the Bear

Throughout the campaign, several observers warned that Zelenzkiy would be soft on Russia at best, or was harboring pro-Russian sentiments at worst: Rutgers political science professor and Russia expert Alexander Motyl went so far as to pen an article for Foreign Policy magazine with the alarmist title, “Ukraine’s TV President is Dangerously Pro-Russian.”  Motyl wasn’t the only one sounding the alarm, of course.  During the campaign, Poroshenko frequently warned of Zelenskiy’s inexperience, particularly when it comes to standing up to Russian president Vladimir Putin.  At the candidates’ April 19 debate (held in a Kyiv stadium with the candidates and their “fans” literally facing off against one another from opposite ends of the field), Poroshenko told Zelenskiy that he would be “a weak head of state who would be unable to defend himself from Putin’s blows.”  Failure to do so, he warned, could mean “the return of Ukraine back to the influence of the Russian empire.”

There can be little doubt that Moscow is glad to see its vehement foe Poroshenko removed from power, though there is currently little evidence to suggest that Zelenskiy will be more accommodating of Russia’s vision for Ukraine.  Putin provocatively threw down the gauntlet shortly after Zelenskiy’s victory by announcing a simplification of the process by which residents of the disputed Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine could gain Russian citizenship, later remarking that this expedited process could be extended to all Ukrainian citizens.  Stoking memories of similar gambits in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Crimea before the outbreak of armed hostilities, Putin’s move was soundly rejected by Zelenskiy who upped the ante by offering Ukrainian citizenship to citizens of Russia.

Trolling the Russian president on social media (his preferred medium), Zelenskiy noted, “The difference for Ukraine, in particular, lies in the fact that we, Ukrainians, have freedom of speech, free media and the Internet in our country. Therefore, we know perfectly well what a Russian passport actually provides. This is the right to be arrested for peaceful protest. It is the right not to have free and competitive elections. This is the right to forget about the existence of natural rights and freedoms.” He continued, “Ukraine will not give up its mission to serve as an example of democracy for the post-Soviet countries.  And part of this mission will be the provision of protection, asylum and Ukrainian citizenship to all who are ready to fight for freedom. We will provide shelter and assistance to everyone — everyone who is ready to fight side by side with us for our freedom and yours.”  If nothing else, these mutual slaps in the face with passports suggest that Zelenskiy has no intention of rolling over as Putin’s lap dog.

The ultimate challenge

One foreign policy issue in which Zelenskiy made waves during the campaign was his declaration that he would revive the Minsk-II talks to settle the conflict in the Donbas once and for all.  Stoking fears by declaring on television that “for the sake of people’s lives, I’m ready negotiate even with the devil” and “at the end of the day, we will need somehow to achieve an agreement with the Russians as there is no military solution,” some took this as a willingness to make major concessions to Russia.  This too was a major point of contrast with Poroshenko, whose mutual loathing of Vladimir Putin had brought all progress on a peace settlement to a halt.

Might a fresh face and a major electoral mandate be enough to jumpstart peace talks and finally deliver a lasting peace that both Moscow and Kyiv can live with?  Such an outcome is unlikely.  This stems from an inability and unwillingness of either side to fully implement the 2015 Minsk-II agreements, as the agreements – though signed by both Russia and Ukraine – contains provisions that each finds intolerable.  Especially problematic is provision number 11 requiring

“Carrying out constitutional reform in Ukraine with a new Constitution entering into force by the end of 2015, providing for decentralization as a key element (including a reference to the specificities of certain areas in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, agreed with the representatives of these areas), as well as adopting permanent legislation on the special status of certain areas of the Donetsk and Lugansk.”

Though Kyiv might be able and willing to grant limited autonomy to the contested regions as part of a wider program of political decentralization, such limited measures would fall far short of the near-independence (particularly in setting external relations) that Moscow and the Donbas rebels seek when they demand autonomy and a special status.  Conceding to Russia’s interpretation of autonomy, some Ukrainians fear, would informally institutionalize Russia’s involvement in Ukrainian domestic politics by giving Russia a privileged seat at the domestic table in Donetsk and Luhansk (and Kyiv, by extension).  Such concessions would  be unacceptable to Ukraine’s many nationalist parties and organizations and likely political suicide for Zelenskiy.  Thus, even if Zelenskiy is proposing new negotiations in good faith, the reality of incompatible interests likely dooms a lasting peace agreement between Moscow and Kyiv.

Ukraine and the West

Given president-elect Zelenskiy’s lack of concrete policy statements and proposals throughout the campaign, many observers in Ukraine and beyond have wondered whether Zelenskiy would continue the staunchly pro-Western foreign policy of his predecessor.  On the question of Ukraine’s cooperation with NATO, a Zelenskiy spokesman recently declared, “The security and defense forces will continue intensive cooperation with NATO and relevant EU organizations; in particular, as regards the achievement of interoperability in conducting possible joint operations. We will clearly support the implementation of the measures stipulated by the annual NATO-Ukraine national cooperation program under the aegis of the NATO-Ukraine Commission.”  Though NATO membership is a distant – some would say impossible – dream for Ukraine, Zelenskiy has committed to building nationwide support for membership in the alliance in the leadup to a proposed referendum on NATO membership.  Such a referendum is seen by some as unnecessarily redundant, as the Ukrainian parliament passed a constitutional amendment in February 2019 by a vote of 334-35 cementing in law Ukraine’s commitment to pursue EU and NATO membership as a cornerstone of Ukrainian national security.

A familiar path

From this vantage point we must question whether Ukraine after the election of Volodymyr Zelinsky really is at a crossroads after all.  In the domestic arena, Ukrainian politics are likely to continue to be dominated by familiar battles over corruption, reform, and economic influence.  Though Ukraine has put another notch in its democratic belt with the peaceful transition of power, it is unlikely that Ukraine’s “pluralism by default” will coalesce into something more stable in the near term.  It is equally unlikely that Zelinskiy will be able to fully deliver on his promises to clean up Ukrainian politics and drain the swamp, just as Poroshenko failed to effectively tackle corruption.  On the foreign policy front, Ukraine still faces Russian aggression in the East and political warfare everywhere with no end in sight.  And so, Ukraine continues to face westward, as it has done for the last five years.

As such, we are reminded of the famous epigram: “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Robert Person is an associate professor of international relations at the United States Military Academy, West Point.  Follow him on Twitter at @RTPerson3 or visit his website at The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the official position of the United States Army, Department of Defense, or United States Government. JPR status: opinion.