The latest Ukrainian opinion polls show that President Volodymyr Zelensky has lost his main advantage: his popularity with the public. For the first time, fewer people said they supported him than did not. The old elites have been waiting for this moment ever since Zelensky’s landslide victory last year. 

Having thrown down the gauntlet to the establishment, Zelensky has proved unable to consolidate his electoral victory in practice. He has lost a substantial part of his team, and finds himself at a crossroads: should he continue down the path he is on and risk forfeiting real power, or try to reboot the system once again?

The unprecedented level of support that swept Zelensky to power in spring 2019 was the new president’s chief asset. It gave him carte blanche to carry out reforms, hold talks with Russia on resolving the Donbas conflict, and purge the elites. 

In September, Zelensky reaffirmed his mandate when his Servant of the People party gained a conclusive majority in elections for the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament.

Just a few months into his rule, Zelensky’s ratings predictably began to fall. In response, Zelensky sacrificed his young reformer prime minister, Oleksiy Honcharuk. But mistakes made by the president’s team and unfavorable conditions continued to eat away at Zelensky’s popularity.

There are many objective reasons for the decline in his ratings, in addition to disappointment resulting from overly high expectations. For a start, Zelensky has been landed with the unprecedented global crisis caused by the new coronavirus pandemic. The epidemic helped to cover up some mistakes made by Zelensky’s administration, and the economic decline had begun even before Ukraine’s lockdown, but overall, it was a vast stroke of terrible luck for the new president.

The closing of Ukraine’s borders with Europe stopped the movement of migrant workers: a crucial source of revenues for the Ukrainian economy. Lockdown measures also had a major impact on small and medium-sized businesses, Zelensky’s key electoral base, and hopes of attracting foreign investors were dashed. Zelensky’s team can’t deliver the economic growth it promised, and instead can only try to save the country from a default. GDP had already fallen by 5.9 percent by May this year.

Polls show that Ukrainians consider the main achievement of Zelensky’s first year in power to be the release of Ukrainian prisoners by Russia last fall, but this has now largely been forgotten because no breakthrough has been made in Donbas peace talks, and the bombardments continue. The promise of peace—Zelensky’s main campaign pledge—remains unfulfilled because of the president’s unrealistic strategy and the unwillingness of Ukrainian society to make painful compromises.

There was a window of opportunity for Zelensky at the beginning of his term, when he could have used his enormous popularity to sever the Gordian knot of the peace process by either withdrawing from the Minsk agreements or implementing their political conditions. He could have de facto recognized Ukraine’s defeat and thrown everything into domestic reform, risking a new revolution. But the president chose to draw out the conflict in hope of a miracle, which quickly led to people losing faith in Zelensky as their leader. 

Now Zelensky must rule without his biggest asset: his widespread popularity. There is no obvious way to drastically boost his ratings: there are no resources to indulge in any social populism; talks on the Donbas are deadlocked; and even the classic tactic favored by Ukrainian politicians of blaming their predecessors isn’t working anymore: cases against Petro Poroshenko are collapsing in court. 

Zelensky’s opponents won’t sit back idly either. By the fall, the national-patriotic opposition will likely activate protests. The power of such protests shouldn’t be overestimated: Poroshenko has fallen too far from grace to lead a new Maidan revolution. But amid a recession, the actions of the former president’s supporters could become a catalyst for other disgruntled Ukrainians to take to the streets.

Local elections planned for October this year will be a test of the opposition’s strength. Regional polls show that Servant of the People’s prospects are far from rosy. The president’s party has not managed to create stable organizations in the regions, and chaos and rivalry rule in its ranks.

The presidential administration is reportedly considering dissolving parliament ahead of schedule. This would create the illusion of a new phase of activity on Zelensky’s part, and allow him to compile the party list with greater care and purge it of lobbyists for the oligarchs and other undesirables. The president has some major bones to pick with his own parliamentary faction, which recently failed to pass the government program.

There aren’t any solid legal grounds for dissolving parliament, however, and in the event of new parliamentary elections, Servant of the People risks losing its current majority. That would leave Zelensky with an unpleasant dilemma: forge a coalition with the westward-looking Poroshenko or former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, or with the pro-Russian Opposition Platform. That would mean an end to the idea of Ukrainian centrism and to maneuvering between the pro-Western and pro-Russian forces.

Zelensky is starting to bear an increasingly strong resemblance to the last Ukrainian president to sweep to power on the back of a revolution: Viktor Yushchenko, messianic expectations of whom gave way to profound disappointment, and whose attempts at reform ended in the handover of power to the oligarchy. Zelensky’s position is of course stronger than Yushchenko’s: the latter was only really president of half the country, while the other half, which had not voted for him, viewed him as little more than a usurper. Zelensky won votes across the country (though far fewer in the southeast). But that resource isn’t infinite. 

Another important difference between Yushchenko and Zelensky is that the latter isn’t a professional politician, so he isn’t used to peaks and troughs in his popularity. For a TV star, a further fall in his ratings could become a serious demotivating factor. The banal transformation of Zelensky from the “people’s president” into yet another post-Soviet Ukrainian politician with broken promises, a state dacha, and a dodgy entourage will primarily weigh on the president himself. 

Whatever he does next, whether it is to sit out his term in office, exploit the achievements of his honeymoon period, call snap elections in the hope of shoring up his mandate, or even step down as president prematurely, radical populism is pointless without popular support. Zelensky went all in in 2019, hurling himself into the battle for the presidency with noble intentions. But without a clear plan of action, the time of reckoning has now come, and he must pay for his unsuccessful improvisation.

  • Konstantin Skorkin