Several Contenders Lay in Wait to Challenge Zelenskyy for Presidency

Popular military leaders can enter politics once the war is over

29 June 2023

Aleksandra Klitina

Future of Ukraine Fellow

President Zelenskyy enjoys high popularity for his resolute war leadership, but handling peace and reconstruction will pose a challenge once elections or a referendum on a future peace deal are held.

Since the full-scale invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy remains Ukraine’s most popular politician, whose display of stamina, leadership and elevated international standing have already secured him a place in history among Ukrainian national heroes.

According to the latest poll from February 2023, 91 per cent of Ukrainians were satisfied with his performance, and a sizable majority (65 per cent) wanted him to serve another term as president. Presidential elections are not due until next year, while a parliamentary poll is likely to be postponed from its October schedule due to the war.

Outcome of war and reconstruction will be big tests

This high approval has reflected Zelenskyy’s ability to rally compatriots against the Russian invaders and considerable success in winning the hearts, minds and wallets of Western leaders and societies with his often dramatic, yet rhetorically brilliant, pleas for support.

His high profile is enhanced by the fact that criticising him during the country’s war effort seems un-patriotic even to independent analysts, aware that any sign of internal discord in Ukraine is going to be blared out by Kremlin propagandists. On the other hand, this means the president is becoming accustomed to having no competitors or critics and takes his support for granted.

This is a potential pitfall because success at leadership during an existential war is not the same as leading in peacetime. Zelenskyy’s biggest tests are yet to come – securing peace at terms acceptable to the majority of Ukrainians and managing the country’s post-war reconstruction as well as the reforms needed to obtain the coveted EU membership.

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Ella Libanova, head of the  Institute for Demography and Social Research of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, believes Zelenskyy’s standing with the public will inevitably suffer after the war with Russia.

“His rating will significantly decrease. First of all, people will remember everything that went wrong. Today everyone clenches their teeth,” she said.

“We must overcome the enemy; we must restore normal life in Ukraine. And then, we will raise our claims. It is a normal situation. And political parties will remember all. We are not getting away from this.”

Zelenskyy staked out his future on a promise to regain all lost territory, including Crimea. While Russia’s weakness on the battlefield suggests this may be a realistic military objective, it is far from certain that when the guns go silent, Kyiv will get all it wants.

The subject of peace negotiations or concessions remains taboo in Ukraine, and no political force or aspiring politician would dare to broach the topic in the face of Russian atrocities and devastation. But this is an issue that is on the back of everybody’s mind, and no one has any doubt that it may be vital to Zelenskyy’s political future.

“It all depends on how the war ends. If it is our victory, then his (Zelenskyy’s) chances are extremely high. If it is not a 100 per cent victory, then his chances are not so clear-cut,” one opposition parliamentarian said, withholding his identity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

The pall of corruption

Corruption is another challenge, especially in the context of billions of euros and dollars flowing into the country from Western donors to sustain its economy and military effort. Hundreds of billions more may pour in for reconstruction, if donors are satisfied the funds will not be misused.

There have been a number of worrying incidents demonstrating how hard it is to shake off decades of rampant corruption and patronage networks, even if the once-powerful oligarchs no longer wield unlimited power.

The deputy head of the presidential office, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, a close ally of Zelenskyy, resigned in January after he was accused of misappropriating a Chevrolet Tahoe SUV, which General Motors gave to Ukraine for transporting people from the war zone. Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov, who had become a popular figure, saw his image tarnished when serious irregularities with procurement were uncovered in his department. Dozens of officials in the government, law enforcement and fiscal bodies, such as the entire management of the Ukrainian customs service, have been dismissed over corruption-related issues.

The public, and especially the citizen-soldiers fighting on the frontlines, have been outraged over these incidents, with surveys showing trust in the government as a whole is falling.

“The hype and admiration since the start of the war is declining. Every day his (Zelenskyy’s) and the government’s rating is falling. Reasonable questions arise: why are some fighting and giving up everything, while his people – who sit two floors below him – are enriching themselves at this moment,” the same opposition lawmaker said.

Zelenskyy has responded to such criticism with efforts to reinvigorate the anti-corruption campaign. An essential role is being played by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau and the specialised Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office – the bodies whose independence was one of the conditions for Ukraine to receive visa-free status with the EU and financial aid from the IMF.

Analysts say more must be done. Zelenskyy has to respond swiftly to public expectations and keep the morale of the troops high. Wartime corruption at the top is unequivocally interpreted as looting. To do that, he must show readiness to sack even his closest aides if they fail to clean up their acts.

Zelenskyy saw his popularity wane before

Zelenskyy’s ratings were declining before Russia’s full-scale invasion. In the first round of the presidential election in 2019, he received 30 per cent of the vote. He went on to accumulate the entire protest electorate in the second round for a sensational result of 73 per cent. But already at the end of his first year in office, in May 2020, support for him eased to about 40 per cent, and by the end of the second year, it dipped to 30 per cent. In February 2022, on the eve of the war, this number stood at a record low of 25 per cent.

The erosion of Zelenskyy’s support was inevitably affected by over-inflated expectations, corruption scandals, personnel failures, skyrocketing utility prices and the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. Failure on the promise to settle the dispute with Moscow also led to disappointment and later fear of war.

The Russian invasion changed everything: Zelenskyy morphed from a struggling president to the leader of a fighting nation and commander-in-chief. His decision to stay in Kyiv, despite advice from Western allies to move to a safer location, played a key role. This courage and determination created a pool of moral capital with which he left all his political rivals in the dust.

The outbreak of the war has all but nullified the positions of Zelenskyy’s opponents. Pro-Russian politicians or oligarchs were the first to drop out. Under Putin’s aggression, all parties that had the image of being pro-Kremlin were banned.

Zelenskyy’s main rival in the last election, former president Petro Poroshenko, lost all support. According to the National Democratic Institute survey conducted in January 2023, Poroshenko was evaluated negatively by 74 per cent of respondents versus 18 per cent who gave him a positive opinion. Similar ratings applied to other former prominent figures such as  Yulia Tymoshenko, Petro Poroshenko and Yuriy Boyko.

The survey also indicated who might be Zelenskyy’s future presidential rivals. The list was topped by the popular army chief Valeriy Zaluzhniy, a comedian-turned-civil activist Serhiy Pritula, and Volodymyr Klitschko, the popular mayor of Kyiv.

Source: https://www.ndi.org/sites/default/files/January_2023_Ukraine_wartime_survey_ENG.pdf Opportunities and challenges facing Ukraine’s democratic transition, National Democratic Institute Nationwide Telephone Survey January 4 – 16, 2023

Military heroes may play political roles

According to political experts, the potentially most formidable challengers to Zelenskyy may come from the ranks of the military commanders made popular by the war. If victorious, the profile of the army, the veterans and their commanders will receive a boost.

The press often reports on the alleged friction between the president and General Zaluzhny, the army chief of staff, whose popularity is comparable with Zelenskyy’s. Russian propaganda is especially fond of speculating on this topic. Zaluzhny has so far denied political ambition and, like other potential contenders, stresses the country’s survival depends on cooperation between the civilian and military authorities. If there is any competition between Zelenskyy and Zaluzhny, it is postponed until better times.

A more visible political ambition is detectable when it comes to Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukraine’s military intelligence service. The publicity of the head of intelligence and his statements have an essentially political undertone. Some insiders say his ambitions are spurred on by the presidential circle, who see him as a future political ally.

“The President’s office is pushing Budanov for a political career; for them, he is closer than Zaluzhny. Besides, Budanov is not really a military man; he is an operator, and what he has done with military intelligence deserves respect,” another opposition Ukrainian lawmaker said.

A couple of prominent civilian leaders may also have a shot at challenging Zelenskyy.

Prytula, once a popular comedian like Zelenskyy, has become a prominent war support organiser and fundraiser in Ukraine. Other charitable foundations cannot match the almost cosmic speed of fundraising that Prytula’s foundation demonstrates. Since February 2022, his foundation has raised more than 3.5 billion hryvnias (88 million euros) for the Ukrainian army, including funding for a satellite.

Klitschko also remains in the game, having harboured presidential ambitions before the war. There is no love lost between the former boxing champion and Zelenskyy, and although they both avoided open confrontation in the first year of the war, tensions are now spilling into the open.

Zelenskyy took advantage of an outrage directed at Klitschko over a recent incident when bomb shelters in Kyiv failed to open during an air attack, which resulted in civilian deaths, to criticise the mayor. There is speculation that the president may even remove Klitschko from his parallel post as head of the Kyiv city state administration.

Former Zelenskyy adviser Oleksiy Arestovych, who has a strong social media following, continues to fuel rumours about his own political aspirations while coquettishly assuring everyone he would not run for president if Zelenskyy does.

Arestovych resigned as senior adviser to the president in January 2023 after his statement on the Feygin Live YouTube programme that Ukraine’s air defence forces shot down the missile that destroyed part of a house in Dnipro, then fell on a high-rise building and exploded.

Election timing uncertain, peace referendum possible

The current parliamentary term runs out in October this year, but martial law will likely be extended beyond that date, preventing an election from taking place in due course. The presidential vote is slated for next spring. Postponing the votes cannot take forever, and analysts say Ukraine must gradually start planning for holding elections even if a quick end to the war remains elusive.

“Perhaps the war will be of medium intensity, low intensity, or there will be circumstances beyond our control,” said Ihor Popov, a political expert at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future.

“[Maybe] there will be some ceasefire agreements, and then we will have to hold elections. Because our constitution stipulates, and this is also our international obligation, that we have terms for Parliament and President.”

A ceasefire or a peace treaty, if and when it is reached, may require a referendum, especially if the terms fall short of the current objectives and Zelenskyy and the government have to accept some compromises.

While this possibility is not yet openly discussed, one thing is clear – once Ukrainians are called upon to exercise their democratic right to vote and determine the country’s direction, politics will wake up from the current slumber, and the supremacy of Zelenskyy is going to be contested.

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Published as part of our Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.

The featured image from the President of Ukraine’s website is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International and is available here.

Aleksandra Klitina

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Aleksandra Klitina is a Future of Ukraine Fellow as well as a Senior Correspondent for Kyiv Post, with over a decade of experience in private and public institutions, including serving as a former Deputy Minister in Ukraine’s Ministry of Infrastructure. She has a background in advocating infrastructure and public administration reforms and has worked on EU projects in Ukraine.

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