Campaigning kicks off for Ukraine early parliamentary polls

Dmytro GORSHKOV and Oleksandr SAVOCHENKO
Incoming president Volodymyr Zelensky wants to secure maximum seats for his newly-formed party, Servant of the People after a TV show in which he played a president, to enable him to push through reforms (AFP Photo/Sergei SUPINSKY)

Kiev (AFP) - Campaigning for Ukraine's snap parliamentary polls began Friday as comedian-turned-president Volodymyr Zelensky seeks to cement his grip on power.

The 41-year-old political novice won a landslide victory last month in a rebuke to the elites, promising to purge the influence of powerful oligarchs.

Ukraine's sixth president dissolved a parliament dominated by his political opponents immediately after taking office this week.

The speed with which Zelensky moved drew gasps from the political establishment, with many accusing him of sparking a constitutional crisis.

Zelensky insisted the old parliament did not enjoy popular support.

He needs to secure maximum seats for his newly-formed party, called Servant of the People after a television show in which he played a president.

Originally parliamentary elections had been set to take place in October but Zelensky called early polls for July 21.

Established in 2017, the Servant of the People is already leading in opinion polls with 44 percent support.

It has recently said it will profess libertarianism.

Analysts chalk up the party's massive popularity to the high approval ratings of Zelensky, who last month beat incumbent Petro Poroshenko winning 73 percent of the vote.

The ballot is expected to dramatically change the composition of a parliament until now dominated by Poroshenko's party.

- 'Pro-Russian force' -

It is also set to give a more prominent role to the pro-Moscow "Opposition Platform," in a boon for the Kremlin.

It is now the second most popular party, with more than 10 percent of respondents saying they would vote for it, according to the Rating pollster.

"The Kremlin needs a powerful pro-Russian force in parliament," Kiev-based political analyst Vadym Karasyov told AFP.

Karasyov said the pro-Russian party's popularity has been on the rise because Ukrainians have grown sick of war.

Kiev is locked in a simmering conflict with Kremlin-backed separatists that has claimed some 13,000 lives since 2014.

Zelensky's party will form the basis for Ukraine's new parliamentary coalition which will then assemble the government, Karasyov added.

According to opinion polls, several more parties are expected to overcome a five-percent vote threshold to enter the Verkhovna Rada.

Poroshenko's party and the party of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko enjoy 8.8 percent and 7.3 percent support respectively.

- 'Dreaming of victory' -

Poroshenko's party has launched a major re-branding effort to recover from his brutal election defeat.

On Friday, the party -- called Petro Poroshenko's Bloc Solidarity -- announced it was changing its name to European Solidarity.

"We love fighting but we are dreaming of victory," Poroshenko said, adding a party congress will be held next week.

Ukrainian rock star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk -- who has openly spoken about political ambitions but decided against running for president -- has also thrown his hat into the ring.

Last week, he launched his own political party, dubbed Golos (Voice). Its popularity is growing rapidly and now stands at 4.6 percent.

Under the current legislation, half of the 450-seat chamber's lawmakers are elected via party lists; the other half are selected directly in single-member districts.

Zelensky wanted to push through changes to the electoral law by lowering the voting threshold and having the next chamber elected only on party lists.

Lawmakers refused to consider those proposals.

Some of Zelensky's first moves since taking office have raised eyebrows.

Zelensky has appointed a lawyer of controversial oligarch Igor Kolomoisky as his chief of staff, sparking new questions about his independence.

On Thursday, he delivered a speech at an IT forum peppered with F-words.

On Friday, Zelensky and German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed ways to intensify efforts to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine.