KYIV -- Turnout in Ukraine’s snap parliamentary elections appeared low as President Volodymyr Zelenskiy seeks a mandate to push through long-awaited reforms.
The early election, which Zelenskiy called three months ahead of its originally scheduled date, is seen as a litmus test for his popularity two months after a resounding election victory following his meteoric rise as a political outsider.
Polls suggest Zelenskiy, a former comic who played an accidental president in the hit TV sitcom Servant Of The People, has managed to retain much of his popularity. He called the early elections because the outgoing parliament is dominated by his opponents, hampering his capacity to enact reforms.
The question now is whether Servant Of The People, an allied, months-old political party that took its name after the TV show, will do well enough in the polls to get a majority or a strong plurality in the Verkhovna Rada, possibly providing Zelenskiy a solid mandate to push forward on reforms.
Much will hinge on whether young voters, who lifted Zelenskiy to victory, will turn out in significant numbers for the July 21 parliamentary elections. As of 4 p.m. local time, turnout was only 36 percent, lower than expected.
Western supporters of Zelenskiy’s efforts will be watching to see whether his parliamentary allies can push through key reform legislation to tackle problems like the country’s rickety gas and electricity infrastructure; the nascent state of anti-corruption laws and agencies; and an oligarchic system that has all but dictated policymaking for years.
Zelenskiy told journalists after he voted in Kyiv that he believes one of the first tasks of the country's new parliament should be to consider lifting a law granting lawmakers immunity from prosecution in a country constantly ranked among the most corrupt in the world.
He also said he wants parliament to choose a “professional economist” to head the government.
"I would very much like this to be an absolutely independent person who has never been a prime minister, a speaker, or a leader of any [parliamentary] faction," Zelenskiy said.
An International Republican Institute survey released on July 9 showed 67 percent of Ukrainians approving of Zelenskiy's job performance.
And a poll released July 18 by the Razumkov Center, a Kyiv-based think tank, predicted that the Servant Of The People was on track to get 40.2 percent of ballots cast, up 4 percentage points from a similar poll taken a month ago.
The poll of 2,018 Ukrainians aged 18 and older was conducted July 12-19 and has a margin of error of 2 percentage points.
But even that result would fail to earn it an outright majority and would force the self-declared libertarian party to seek a coalition partner with one of the other parties that manage to pass the 5-percent threshold for parliament.
Iryna Bekeshkina, a political analyst and director of the Democratic Initiatives Foundation research group, noted that Zelenskiy’s April victory was driven in no small part by young voters, when turnout was 62 percent.
In an online commentary, however, she predicted that young voters were less likely to turn out to support Servant Of The People, mainly out of a lack of excitement, hinting Zelenskiy’s party could receive fewer votes than the polls implied.
According to the Razumkov poll, there are four other parties that are likely to pass the threshold.
They include Opposition Platform, a political party pushing for better ties with Russia, which trailed with around 12.1 percent, and Fatherland, the party of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, which garnered support from 7.7 percent of those polled.
European Solidarity, which is allied with Poroshenko, whom Zelenskiy defeated in the April election, was polling at around 6.5 percent. Finally, an upstart party called Holos polled at around 6.1 percent.
Led by Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, currently Ukraine’s biggest pop-music star, Holos espouses a strong pro-Western, pro-European ideology. Given the lingering ill-will between the Zelenskiy and Poroshenko camps, that could make Holos the most likely coalition partner for Servant Of The People.
“Our intention is to influence,” Vakarchuk told RFE/RL after voting. “If you are in a coalition, you have much more power, much more possibilities to influence and to change things.”
Vakarchuk said Ukrainians have been "disappointed" with progress in recent years and that a new parliament is needed to move the country forward.
"It is not enough to change only the president. We need to change the Rada in order to make real changes," he said.
Experts say low voter turnout may bode poorly for Zelenskiy's and Vakarchuk's parties and help establishment parties such as the European Solidarity or Tymoshenko's Fatherland.
Voter turnout was likely to be lower than during the 2014 parliamentary elections when 52 percent of eligible voters participated.
As of late afternoon, participation was greater in the Russian-speaking, eastern parts of the country, where Opposition Platform is popular. However, the western parts tend to vote later.
Polls opened at 8 a.m. local time and are scheduled to close at 8 p.m.
The Interior Ministry said police had received 382 reports of violations.
At a polling station at Gymnaziya No. 19 in Kyiv, Viktor Buryazuk and Olena Ivanenko told RFE/RL they voted for Servant of the People out of loyalty to Zelenskiy.
“We see hope in Zelenskiy...we want change,” Ivanenko said.
At the same polling station, Valentyna and her daughter Nadezhda said they voted for the European Solidarity party because they believe Poroshenko set the country on a European course and were pleased with the results of his presidency. Valentyna said she liked Poroshenko “because he is a real politician” and members of his party have the “political experience” needed to govern. Zelesnkiy, Nadezhda said, is “unprofessional.”
“He’s a comedian...and we need serious people” leading the country, she said.
Ukraine's parliament comprises 450 seats. However, only 424 are up for grabs after Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and war in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions saw the loss of several voting districts.
Under Ukrainian law, half of the seats are distributed according to lists generated by the parties; the other half are distributed to majority winners in districts where there is only a single-member constituency.
Ties To Oligarch
Even with a fresh face and the charisma born of a popular TV series that shares its name with the political party, Zelenskiy has seen his presidency dogged by questions about how willing he is to break from the oligarch-and-backroom-deals tradition of politicking in Ukraine.
Zelenskiy’s ties to one of the country’s wealthiest men, Ihor Kolomoyskiy, has worried reformers and some Western supporters. Zelenskiy’s chief of staff previously worked as Kolomoyskiy’s lawyer.
But many -- though not all -- of the candidates on the list released by the Servant Of The People party are political novices; even current members of parliament who would be obvious additions to the party’s list were kept off, purportedly as a way for the party to assert it was making a break from politics as usual.
On the whole, the run-up to the July 21 vote was punctuated by more typical dirty tricks.
They included "clone candidates” -- in which little-known individuals with names nearly identical to established candidates show up on ballots in a bid to confuse voters.
A month after Zelenskiy’s election, the World Bank warned that investors’ confidence had been dented by uneven reforms and election uncertainties. The lender said growth could fall below 2 percent if major reforms were stalled.
In a video posted to social media last week, Zelenskiy addressed foreign investors in English, promising to clean up the government and make the country attractive for investment.
The first exit polls are expected immediately after voting ends, with preliminary official results expected by early July 22.