Focus Shifts to Parliament Election as Zelenskiy Thrashes Poroshenko

April 22, 2019

Eastern Ukrainian actor and entertainment mogul Volodymir Zelenskiy soundly defeated incumbent President Petro Poroshenko in the runoff round of Ukraine’s presidential election on Sunday (Apr 21). With almost all the vote counted, Zelenskiy won 73% of the national vote compared to 25% for Poroshenko and 2% spoiled/unmarked ballots. The result comes in line with pre-election polling and follows a last-minute televised debate at the national football stadium in Kyiv on Friday (Apr 19) where Zelenskiy performed better than expected and Poroshenko was unable to make up any ground. Zelenskiy won all of Ukraine’s 25 electoral districts (24 provinces plus Kyiv City) with the sole exception of Lviv province in Western Ukraine, where Poroshenko took 62%. Meanwhile, Zelenskiy’s tally was overwhelming - above 80% - in all of the country’s Russophone southeastern provinces. Poroshenko is set to remain as President until early June, when Zelenskiy will be sworn in. in Ukraine, the President appoints only two of the more than 20 Cabinet posts, so the current government headed by Poroshenko ally Volodymir Groysman has grounds to remain in place until the country’s national parliamentary election due in late October.  

After the glow from Zelenskiy’s impressive victory wears off, we believe that he will immediately start to be pulled in two opposite directions: on one hand, toward a more conciliatory approach to Russia demanded by his base electorate in southeastern Ukraine, and on the other, toward a continuation of Poroshenko’s nationalism and tough negotiating positions in regard to the Russian-occupied Crimea and Donbass territories. The latter stance is favored by millions of Central and Western Ukrainian voters who refused to support Poroshenko’s re-election under any condition, and backed Zelenskiy only by default. Definitely, the huge margin of Zelenskiy’s victory indicates a rejection of the ideological aspects of Poroshenko’s presidency as top national priorities; Poroshenko’s impressive achievements in stalemating Russian military aggression and obtaining independence of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church from Moscow ultimately counted for little with the Central Ukrainian swing voters who historically have provided the margin of victory in the country’s presidential elections. We expect Poroshenko and his BPP parliamentary faction to take a largely cooperative approach with Zelenskiy in the early months of the latter’s presidency ahead of a mad scramble for power in the October parliamentary vote. Clearly it would favor Zelenskiy, who currently has no parliamentary representation, to move up the date of the election, but we view this maneuver as difficult for him to achieve. As we noted above, Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People party will quickly have to decide where to position itself for the election, and we suspect the new president will first of all need to keep his base satisfied in the Russophone southeast. In terms of other parliamentary configurations, it will be important to watch the moves of the governing People’s Front party and its de-facto leaders, Interior Minister Arseniy Avakov and former PM Arseniy Yatseniuk. The People’s Front, which split away from Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivschyna party in 2014, represents one of Ukraine’s most powerful and longstanding political/business clans and it will not disappear, but will rather be re-branded; the key question is whether Avakov and Yatseniuk might re-join forces with leftist opposition leader Tymoshenko, who will be keen to have them on board as she mounts yet another effort to become Prime Minister. As for Poroshenko, despite his heavy defeat on Sunday, we think he has ample support to enter Parliament as a significant player if he chooses to continue his political career, since he has around 15% of the country’s voters firmly committed to him. Yet we doubt that Poroshenko’s BPP will end up being the main opposition to Zelenskiy once a new governing configuration has been set up in late 2019. 

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