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EXPLAINER: Does Ukraine have political opposition?

by Andrea Januta June 26, 2024 10:52 PM 7 min read
Volodymyr Zelensky shows an ancient Bulava (historical symbol of the state power) during his inauguration in the Ukrainian parliament in Kyiv, Ukraine on May 20, 2019. (Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
by Andrea Januta June 26, 2024 10:52 PM 7 min read
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Elections are suspended. Martial law has granted new wartime powers to the president’s office. The largest opposition party in parliament was banned after the full-scale invasion.

More than two years after Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukraine’s political opposition has diminished, but continues to affect Ukraine’s politics, experts say. Although President Volodymyr Zelensky and his party still control the parliament, parliamentary members outside of his party still exert some influence on public and international positions on Ukrainian issues.

Additionally, an active civil society provides another check on Zelensky’s legislative and executive authority.

“You cannot ignore the role of the opposition in Ukraine, as you can in Russia, for example,” said Olexiy Haran, a professor of comparative politics at Kyiv Mohyla University.

“With the full-scale invasion and with martial law – which the opposition also voted to introduce – definitely all attention was concentrated on the president and commander-in-chief,” said Haran.

At the time, Zelensky’s popularity skyrocketed and there was a “tacit agreement” not to overly criticize the government, Haran said, but “now, I think that the role of the opposition is starting to increase again.”

2019: New parliament forms with ‘monomajority’

Ukraine’s political opposition was already weakened before the full-scale invasion began, after a landslide parliamentary election in 2019 gave Zelensky’s Servant of the People party a single-party majority, usually referred to as monomajority in Ukraine.

While only 226 votes are needed to pass most legislation, his newly formed party took power with 254 seats. Since then, the number has fallen. Certain seats can only be filled by elections – which are suspended – and members have resigned from parliament, been removed or promoted, and in some cases died. However, the seats held by the Servant of the People party remain above the 226 single-party majority threshold.

Lawmakers of the Servant of the People political party attend a meeting of the Ukrainian Parliament in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 4, 2020. (Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

This landslide victory was unique in Ukraine’s post-Soviet democratic history, allowing Zelensky to rule without the coalition-building required in previous parliaments.  

However, opposition leaders continued to propose bills and use their platforms to shape national conversations.

In 2019, for example, when Zelensky was discussing a potential peace deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin, opposition leaders helped stoke public outrage.

Zelensky’s predecessor, former President Petro Poroshenko, was a particularly outspoken critic, deeming the plan “Putin’s formula,” signing a joint statement with two other opposition leaders demanding no concessions be made, and formally addressed a crowd of thousands at a protest of Zelensky’s peace talks in the nation’s capital.

Ultimately, Zelensky abandoned the plan.

Throughout the first years of Zelensky’s presidency, Poroshenko, his main political opponent, tried to present himself as more patriotic than Zelensky, whom he portrayed as someone who could make concessions to Russia. That strategy collapsed when Russia’s full-scale invasion started in 2022, turning Zelensky into the symbol of Ukraine’s fight against Russia.

Petro Poroshenko speaks during the protest in Kyiv, Ukraine on Dec. 12, 2019. Ukrainians attend a warning protest at the Independence Square called Red Line for Ze (nickname of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky) ahead of the Normandy Format summit meeting. (Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

2022: A new political landscape

The full-scale invasion by Russia in 2022 transformed the political landscape overnight.

When Russian forces invaded on Feb. 24, 2022, Zelensky quickly declared martial law, and the country, including its politicians from different parties, rallied behind him. Bills to extend martial law and a flurry of legislation to put the country on wartime footing garnering near-universal support across the political spectrum.

“There was consensus in Ukrainian society that now we are all together, all Ukrainians, whatever their political affiliations,” Haran said.

Another political consequence of the invasion has been the suspension of elections in Ukraine, allowing Zelensky’s party to hold its grip until martial law ends. However, even Zelensky’s opponents agree that holding elections during the all-out war would be logistically impossible and have continued to extend martial law every 90 days since 2022.  

A month after the invasion, Zelensky announced a ban on 11 pro-Russian political parties, including the Opposition Platform – for Life, which at the time held 44 parliamentary seats, the largest proportion after Servant of the People. Ukrainian courts later ordered the party’s assets seized, though many members of the party continue to serve in parliament under other banners, mostly keeping a low profile.

Who are the opposition today?

“In the first months after the invasion, there was a verbal agreement that all parliamentary factions and groups would consolidate,” said Oleksandr Salizhenko, a parliamentary analyst for the non-profit political watchdog Chesno. “But of course, this coherence and consensus did not last long.”

According to Salizhenko, after the first counter-offensive drove the fighting away from the north and the capital city and hostilities shifted to the east and south of Ukraine, parliamentary unity slipped.

In addition to party divisions, Zelensky’s own party has shown signs of fracture as well.

“The consensus in the parliament still remains, of course. It is not as strong and wide as it was before, but it is still there,” said Salizhenko. In particular, he noted that opposition factions will vote for bills such as defense priorities, but have expressed that they do not support decisions related to government appointees.

“There is opposition in the Ukrainian parliament. It is quite active, it is consistent, and it has its own agenda, which members advocate for,” Salizhenko said.

After the ban of the Opposition Platform – For Life, a handful of key opposition parties control the majority of the remaining opposition votes, alongside smaller groups and independent politicians.

European Solidarity is a pro-European integration party headed by Poroshenko, who has remained a fierce rival of the president since Zelensky defeated him in the 2019 election. Poroshenko has stated that he plans to run again in the next presidential election, but underscored that elections must wait until the war is over. Before the full-scale invasion, law enforcement opened several cases against Poroshenko, inviting concerns of political persecution.

Petro Poroshenko (L) speaks with Volodymyr Zelensky (R) during a presidential election debate at Olimpiyski stadium in Kyiv, Ukraine on April 19, 2019. (Sergei Chuzavkov/AFP via Getty Images)
Ukrainian comedian and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky reacts after the announcement of the first exit poll results in the second round of Ukraine's presidential election at his campaign headquarters in Kyiv, Ukraine on April 21, 2019. (Genya Savilov / AFP via Getty Images)

Batkivshchyna (“Fatherland”), a populist, softly pro-European party, is headed by Yuliia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister who helped lead the Orange Revolution in 2004 that led to the annulment of Viktor Yanukovych’s election victory after reports of rigged elections.

The Holos (“Voice”) party was elected as the only liberal force in parliament in 2019, though in 2021 the party split into two groups – Holos and Spravedlyvist (“Justice”) over a disagreement among party leadership. The Holos party has lobbied domestically and internationally to promote anti-corruption legislation in Ukraine, including submitting rival legislation with more stringent checks on corruption than proposed bills from the ruling party.

Opposition figures have also provided a significant check on the majority’s power through promoting parliamentary transparency. During crucial wartime sessions – which remained closed to the public – Oleksii Honcharenko of European Solidarity and Yaroslav Zhelezniak of Holos published regular updates on the decisions and workings of parliament.

As for parliamentary members from the now-banned pro-Russian parties, they are now among the most reliable supporters of Zelensky’s agenda in terms of parliamentary votes, according to data collected by Chesno, the political watchdog group.

“In our country, to quickly change one’s position is called ‘to change shoes’,” said Salizhenko. “Just a few months after the full-scale invasion, they began to change their shoes. Even in their rhetoric, it can be seen that they began speaking in Ukrainian (instead of Russian), and began to talk about European integration, which they had previously denied.”

Some believe this is likely an attempt to preserve their political careers and mitigate backlash in future elections from their previous Russian support.  

“I would say, because they are afraid of their future, they are actually trying to be very loyal to the government,” said Haran.

The future of the opposition

Once the war ends, Ukraine is likely to experience another dramatic reshaping of the political landscape. Peace will mean an end to martial law, causing an automatic trigger of elections likely within six months.

New political forces could potentially take the shape of an organized party led by prominent wartime volunteers, or soldiers returning from the front, suggested Haran. “But this is all questionable right now. It’s too early to say what will happen.”

However, he said he is confident that Ukraine will preserve its democracy and avoid any attempts to monopolize power, in large part due to its history of pluralism and a strong culture of media and public criticism of leadership – which has continued even during wartime.

“Ukrainians do not want a dictatorship. They are very strongly in favor of democracy,” said Haran.

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