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The Next Test of Ukraine’s Democracy

On July 21, Ukrainians will go to the polls for the third time in five months to vote in snap parliamentary elections – set to be another critical moment for the young democracy.

Throughout June, Ukrainians awaited Constitutional Court’s ruling on the timing of the country’s parliamentary elections. Now, Ukrainians have their answer: The parliamentary elections are scheduled for July 21 — three months earlier than initially planned.

This is the latest twist in what has been a tumultuous year for Ukrainian politics. On April 21, political newcomer and former comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy won Ukraine’s presidential election in a landslide, defeating incumbent Petro Poroshenko. IRI observed the two rounds of voting through a series of long-term and short-term observation missions and deemed the election calm, peaceful, and in accordance with the law in a preliminary observation statement.

In his May 20 inaugural speech, Zelenskiy announced his intention to dismiss parliament and delivered on that promise through a presidential decree the next day. However, Poroshenko and others called the decision unconstitutional, and it was not immediately clear whether the president had the constitutional authority to declare early elections. Ukraine’s Constitutional Court deliberated on the matter for three weeks, finally ruling in Zelenskiy’s favor.

The parliamentary elections will be contested by an array of new parties, with two of the leading parties headed by young and untested political leaders. IRI’s May polling shows that Zelenskiy is likely to solidify his victory — Servant of the People, the party launched for his presidential campaign, is far ahead of any others, drawing 43 percent of votes among likely and decided voters.” Poroshenko’s old party has rebranded itself as European Solidarity and is polling at around 9 percent among likely and decided voters. The elections will also feature more familiar parties and names, including former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party and the Opposition Platform, polling at 8 percent and 11 percent among likely and decided voters, respectively. Other polling shows that Holos (Voice), launched last month by Ukrainian rock star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, currently has the support of about 8 percent of the voting public.

Threats to the Democratic Process

The upcoming parliamentary elections face numerous domestic and foreign threats. Although there was no evidence to suggest that Ukraine’s presidential election was marred by serious interference, the number and complexity of single-mandate districts in parliamentary elections provide an additional opportunity for potential meddling by the Kremlin and corrupt oligarchs. This is particularly the case in the east and south of Ukraine, where constituencies are vulnerable to Russian-language propaganda favoring Moscow’s preferred candidates and to tactics that spread chaos to degrade the legitimacy of the elections. Democracies around the world will be watching the elections in Ukraine to learn techniques to defend themselves against outside threats.

Another Step toward Change

IRI polling consistently reflects that Ukrainians are ready for change. Most importantly, they seek leaders who will fight corruption, resolve the war in Donbas, and improve the economy. As evidenced by the defeat of Poroshenko, politicians who can convince voters that they are agents of change and serious about tackling corruption are posed to perform well.

More broadly, these elections will be another critical test of Ukraine’s democracy and its ability to consistently administer free, fair, competitive elections that accurately reflect the will of the Ukrainian people. IRI is already on the ground, promoting active citizenship, fielding polls and training domestic election observers from political parties and civil society. On Election Day, IRI’s short-term election observation mission will be deployed to cities across the country, ready to witness and assess the next test of Ukraine’s democracy.