Zelenskiy Must Adhere to Constitutional Norms

Marco Levytsky, National Affairs Editor.

Despite the humiliation of losing re-election by the biggest landslide in the brief history of independent Ukraine, and suffering much abuse in television channels owned by rival oligarchs and social media, Ukraine’s outgoing President Petro Poroshenko was magnanimous in defeat. He conceded victory to President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy right after exits polls showed the comedian heading for an electoral rout – well before the official results came in.

Neither did he slink away, his tail between his legs. Instead, Poroshenko vowed to stay in politics, to fight for Ukraine’s sovereignty and to preserve the accomplishments of his administration – an association agreement with the European Union, a reorganization and consolidation of Ukraine’s Armed Forces, a new education law, the promotion of the Ukrainian language and facilitating the recognition of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

“In any political role, I will do my best to counter revanchism and to ensure that Ukraine does not change its course,” he said. “However, the outcome of the election leaves us with uncertainty, unpredictability, and a big question mark on whether the strategic course of Ukraine toward the EU and NATO will be secure and democratic reforms will continue.”

He also called on the international community “to help Ukraine secure its recent achievements and the strategic course of the nation for integration into the European Union and NATO.”

The following day, about 2-3,000 people showed up in front of the presidential administration building to show their support for Poroshenko and thank him for what he has accomplished. Poroshenko reiterated his pledge from the night before to continue in politics and even hinted he may once again run for president.

This election was more a rejection of Poroshenko than an acceptance of Zelenskiy. It could even be said that Ukrainians did not vote for Volodymyr Zelenskiy, but for Vasyl Holoborodko, the character he plays on the popular television series “Servant of the People”. How could they vote for Zelenskiy, when Zelenskiy himself did very little of his own campaigning, relying almost totally on Holoborodko to carry the day.

But Poroshenko did receive a bum rap. For one thing, he was stuck with an austerity program imposed by the International Monetary Fund which forced him to raise natural gas prices 23% in October with another 15% hike scheduled for May 1. For most Ukrainians the price of gas far outweighed the war with Russia, the Ukrainian army, the Ukrainian language, and an independent Ukrainian church as their biggest priority. For another, Poroshenko was subjected to much vitriol – especially on social media, which is extremely popular in Ukraine. Some of our friends in Ukraine have related how a bunch of Facebook groups focussing on specific towns and villages (i.e. My Volododarka, My Tarashcha, My Boryspil, and so on) ostensibly to serve as a link between residents and offer very practical advice, sprang up two years ago. Having attracted a large following, these groups then began a series of vicious attacks on Poroshenko. The administrators of these groups have turned out to be employed by PrivatBank and its founder Ihor Kolomoisky, an oligarch who clashed with Poroshenko, now lives in self-exile in Israel and is the chief backer of Zelenskiy.

Oligarchic rivalry aside, there can be no doubt that the bulk of the anti-Poroshenko social media campaign was orchestrated by Moscow. Russian manipulation of social media in Ukraine began right after the Revolution of Dignity and well before its interference in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. And it was aimed at destroying Poroshenko right from the beginning. Why? Because he stood up to Russia’s aggression and systematically severed Ukraine’s ties to its historical oppressor. There is no evidence that the Russian Federation specifically set out to elect Zelenskiy, but there is no question that it sought to demolish Poroshenko.

Ironically, Zelenskiy may yet prove to be an even bigger problem for Moscow. Although he speaks Russian much better than Ukrainian, and has indicated he may start peace negotiations with Vladimir Putin, he has also stated publicly that Ukraine must continue to stand up to Russian aggression and pursue a pro-European path. But the biggest problem for Moscow with his election is that it demonstrates that even in a former Soviet bloc country a political neophyte can emerge from nowhere to resoundingly defeat a sitting incumbent in fair and open elections, and then rely on a peaceful transition of power taking place. This stands in stark contrast to the rigged elections of Moscow’s “managed democracy”. Even though the Ukrainian people’s historical political culture, which can best be described as ultra-democracy of an anarchic nature, is so much different from the Russian people’s affinity for and slavish obedience to despotism, it can nevertheless become infectious. Vladimir Putin’s greatest fear is that this democratic plague could somehow contaminate the Russian psyche.

On Zelenskiy’s part, having received such an overwhelming mandate, he must now deliver on the promise – even if the promise is based more on illusion than reality. He must initiate the reforms he promised, but he must also maintain the pro-Ukrainian, pro-European course set out by Poroshenko. This includes promotion of the Ukrainian language, support for a strong military and independent Ukrainian church.

Most of all, Zelenskiy cannot let this victory go to his head, and he cannot put the quest for power above the strict framework of Ukrainian constitutional norms. What is alarming is his comment three days before the second round that he would consider an early parliamentary election. According to Ukrainian law, a president can only call a snap parliamentary election six months before the parliament’s mandate runs out which, in this case, is November 27 – one month after the elections scheduled for October 27. In this case, therefore, the last possible date to call parliamentary elections is May 27, a date prior to Zelenskiy’s expected inauguration. Calling an election after that date would be a violation of the constitution. And let us not forget that Viktor Yanukovych violated Ukraine’s constitution right from the beginning when he created his own parliamentary coalition by bribing deputies elected by party lists to abandon their previous affiliations. That’s when the slide to dictatorship began.

Even if Zelenskiy were to be inaugurated before the cut-off date of May 27, any early election would still violate the spirit of the law. Having given Zelenskiy what amounts to a blank cheque, voters cannot be expected to give that same blank cheque to a new parliament. They need time to assess his performance and vote accordingly. And, between now and October 27, Zelenskiy must convince Ukraine’s voters that he deserves a parliamentary majority, or else learn to work with a parliament that may be opposed to his policies. Parliament serves as a check on the powers of the president, so that no one person can assume total control. That is the essence of democracy. And, according to the Constitution of Ukraine, the president is the guarantor of the Constitution, as well as of the state’s sovereignty, territorial indivisibility, and the citizens’ rights and freedoms. Zelenskiy must learn to accept this responsibility and act within the constitutional norms. How he chooses to act with respect to parliament, will be the litmus test of his commitment to democracy.