KYIV – Ukrainians were voting Sunday in local elections that are considered a test for President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a former comedian who took office last year vowing to bring peace, uproot endemic corruption and shore up a worsening economy.
Zelenskiy was elected president by a landslide in April 2019 after campaigning on promises to end fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists in the country's east. Despite his lack of prior political experience, he quickly cemented his grip on power by calling a parliamentary election that resulted in his party winning a strong majority.
But Zelenskiy, 42, has seen his popularity dwindle steadily as living standards have continued to plummet, corruption has remained widespread and international efforts to negotiate a settlement to the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine have failed to yield tangible progress.
While the president's approval ratings are dropping, other political groups regrouped and worked to mount a challenge to his Servant of the People party, which was named after a popular TV series in which Zelenskiy played a school teacher who unexpectedly becomes president.
Opinion surveys have indicated that candidates from Zelenskiy's party will likely perform poorly in Sunday's local races for mayors and municipal councils across the country. Servant of the People's approval ratings were hovering around 16% heading into the election. During Ukraine's July 2019 parliamentary election, the party came out on top with 43% support.
“The time is working against the government, because a miracle promised by Zelenskiy never happened, and Ukrainians felt that they can’t live like in a TV series and have to further tighten their belts,” Tatiana Furs, a 58-year-old sales clerk said.
The parties of former President Petro Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko are expected to win most of the mayoral and council seats in the western part of the country. A pro-Russia party, Opposition Platform for Life, is positioned to make a strong showing in the mostly Russian-speaking east and south of Ukraine.
Balloting will not be held in areas of eastern Ukraine that are controlled by Russia-backed separatists.
In a move widely seen as an attempt by Zelenskiy to shore up his sagging popularity, he coupled the local elections with a survey asking voters for their views on issues that include legalizing cannabis for medical use, introducing life sentences for corruption convictions and creating a free economic zone in the country's east.
“Zelenskiy is well aware of a sharp drop in the government's approval ratings and is trying to fix the situation by trying to attract the young and liberal voters to the polls with the question about cannabis,” said Vadim Karasev, an independent political expert based in Kyiv.
Zelenskiy says the survey results will help shape the government's agenda but many voters shrugged it off as irrelevant.
“Most Ukrainians may need cannabis to forget about the main problem — broad poverty,” Ihor Dryhailo, 48, an engineer in Kyiv who voted for Zelenskiy last year but expressed disappointment with his performance as president. “The government’s words differ from its deeds, and it has been unable to stop a majority of Ukrainians from sliding into poverty.”
Observers predicted political pressure will continue to mount on Zelenskiy after the municipal election, with political rivals likely to press for an early parliamentary vote.
“The local elections will set the stage for an attack on Zelenskiy from all sides,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, the director of Penta Center, an independent think tank. “The right-wing and the left-wing forces will rock the boat and try to provoke a new political crisis, seeking to at least challenge the parliament majority."
Zelenskiy also faces growing pressure from a one-time ally. Billionaire Ihor Kolomoyskyi, who owned the TV station that aired the sitcom that made Zelenskiy famous, hoped to have the 2016 nationalization of his PrivatBank reversed, but Zelenskiy has refused to overturn the decision.
“In retaliation, Kolomoyskyi began to methodically ruin Zelenskiy's majority in parliament, fielding several new parties," political expert Karasev said.
Karasev observed that recent decentralization efforts that gave broad authority to local mayors and councils would make the outcome of Sunday's local elections particularly significant.
“The results of the local elections could come as a cold shower for Zelenskiy, who will have to counter both the parties controlled by the oligarchs and the strengthening regional elites,” he said.