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The weak constitutional culture is the main challenge for Ukraine’s political system

Thomas Sedelius is a Professor of Political Science at Dalarna University, Sweden. His area of expertise covers political institutions and semi-presidentialism in Eastern Europe. Together with Tapio Raunio, he recently published the book Semi-Presidential Policy-Making in Europe: Executive Coordination and Political Leadership (Palgrave, 2020). He is also one of the authors of the International IDEA report Semi-Presidentialism and Inclusive Governance in Ukraine: Reflections for Constitutional Reform (2018).

1. What is your assessment after one year of Zelensky's presidency so far? Is he moving Ukraine in a positive direction?

As a foreign observer of Ukrainian politics, my impression is that the deep-rooted challenges to political stability and effective reforms in Ukraine are just as difficult for president Zelensky as for any of his predecessors. He is now facing the challenge of delivering on radical promises of breaking corruption, enabling more direct citizen involvement in politics, and implementing new business reforms. Except for the emphasis on digitalization and direct democracy, this is not radically different from the agendas proposed by former Ukrainian presidents. The thin ideological basis that propelled Zelensky into the presidency is now to be translated into policy positions, and there seems to be a general lack of comprehensive strategy and political experience within his team. Just like his predecessors, Zelensky will need to transform his party from a pro-presidential movement to a coherent political party with organizational capacity and clear ideas and principles. Past experiences of such party transitions in Ukraine are anything but positive. However, the recent replacement of the Prosecutor General, Ruslan Riaboshapka, and the resignation of the Honcharuk government indicate that Zelensky is already resorting to his predecessors' tactics of balancing between rivaling forces in Ukrainian politics.

Yet to Zelensky's advantage, his trust ratings are still above 50 percent, although with a downward trend (Rating Group Ukraine). And his parliamentary majority is indeed a key asset to pass critical legislation. However, I believe Zelensky's presidency will be judged by his ability to work out an acceptable peace deal with Russia in the Donbas region. His recent step to accept a preliminary agreement on an Advisory Council consisting of representatives of both Russia and the separatist regions has attracted severe criticism from the opposition, the civil society, and even from within his party. If large parts of the Ukrainian society will increasingly perceive Zelensky to be naïve and too soft on Russia, his legitimacy is likely to deteriorate further. That said, finding a road to sustainable peace in Donbas requires some compromise and will inevitably create tensions and opposition within Ukrainian society.

2. Should Ukraine change its system of government and shift the balance of power between the executive and the legislature?

With some hesitation, yes, I believe so. Ukraine has experienced a number of principal challenges to democratic governance, including recurring institutional conflict among the president, parliament, and government; a presidency that has from time to time resorted to autocratic rule; a fragmented and weak party system; and weak constitutional culture. Although these are typical challenges in transitional countries, they can be somewhat mitigated by institutional design. Comparative work on semi-presidentialism suggests that limiting presidential powers and strengthening the prime minister role and parliament is key to safeguard against presidential autocracy.

In this sense, the post-Maidan reform in 2014 where Ukraine reinstalled a premier-presidential form of government, where only the parliament and not the president can dismiss the government, was a step in the right direction. Yet, in our report for International IDEA (2018), we provide options for even further reductions of presidential power in Ukraine. Among our main points, we argue that Ukraine should consider removing the president's power to appoint the Minister of Defence and Minister of Foreign Affairs as well as his power to call a referendum. We also raise concern that the National Security and Defense Council, chaired by the president, has grown into a parallel government that can bypass both the Cabinet and the Rada. In our report, therefore, we recommend that the definition of national security should be more strictly narrowed.

Constitutional reform requires a shared basic understanding of the role and function of the president. That said, Ukraine has had its fair share of constitutional reform. Thus far, however, constitutional changes have generally been driven by extraordinary events such as the Orange Revolution 2004 and the Revolution of Dignity 2014. Any future constitutional reform on executive-legislative relations should occur within the parliamentary arena but possibly include a broad set of representatives from among different groups in the Ukrainian society.

3. What do you think the future holds for Ukraine?

I still believe that the weak constitutional culture is the main challenge for Ukraine's political system. Ever since independence, the political and constitutional zigzagging has contributed to polarization and ineffective governance. Fueled by popular cynicism and corruption, this is a vicious circle that any single president cannot offset by promising quick-fixes or by using populist rhetoric. However, Ukrainian society has repeatedly demonstrated a culture of civic resistance, with no single group or executive leader capturing the state apparatus for a long time. In contrast to neighboring Belarus and Russia, this power balance within the Ukrainian society has safeguarded against presidential autocracy. Translating this civic culture into a constitutional culture of the rule of law is indeed an immense challenge. But even small steps in this direction are worth the effort and could have ripple effects.

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