Ukraine's Zelensky looks to consolidate power in parliament vote


Zelensky's newly-created party is expected to win the largest share of the votes. (Photo: AFP)

Ukrainians went to the polls on Sunday to elect a new parliament as comedian-turned-president Volodymyr Zelensky seeks to consolidate power and bring in other political newcomers.

Opinion polls show Zelensky's Servant of the People party -- named after the sitcom in which he played the president -- expected to win roughly half of the vote, well ahead of any rivals.

The 41-year-old TV star faced a hostile parliament following his shock win in April's presidential election. He quickly called a snap election and has promised to bring in a new generation of politicians to lead the country.

Even with a loyal parliament, Zelensky faces a slew of challenges in a country heavily dependent on foreign aid and scarred by years of war with Russia-backed separatists.

His victory in April was seen as a rejection of the country's traditional elite for failing to end the separatist conflict, revive the economy or tackle widespread corruption.

Casting his ballot at a Kiev polling station, Zelensky rejected any coalition with the "old authorities" and said he would be looking for a "professional economist" to become prime minister.

He was dressed in a casual blue shirt, reflecting a change in style that saw Zelensky walk to his inauguration and announce plans to relocate the presidential administration from a hulking Soviet-era building.

Coalition with rock star? 

Zelensky is expected to look for a coalition partner in another fresh movement -- the new Golos (Voice) party of Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, the 44-year-old lead vocalist of one of Ukraine's most successful rock bands, Okean Elzy.

Vakarchuk set up his party in May and opinion polls show it with support of between four and seven percent. It will need to cross a threshold of five percent to make it into parliament.

The rock star smiled and gave the thumbs-up as he cast his ballot, saying: "I voted for the future, I voted for new politics... All Ukrainians are disappointed (in politics), so we need to change it."

Both Zelensky and Vakarchuk have packed their parties with young people new to politics and banned candidates who had previously served as lawmakers.

Zhan Beleniuk, an Olympic wrestler with Rwandan roots, is one of the candidates running on Zelensky's party list. The mixed-raced athlete told AFP he hopes the election will prove Ukraine is a "modern" country.

Many voters seemed excited by the prospect of new political forces coming to power.

Kateryna, a 31-year-old Kiev woman on maternity leave, said she cast her vote for Vakarchuk because she "believes in his young intelligent team".

"It is the first time I am voting for someone because I like them, not because I have to choose the lesser evil," she said.

Oleksandr Zaporozhets, a 52-year-old builder from Kiev, said he voted for Golos hoping the two anti-establishment politicians can help change the country of 45 million people.

"I hope together they can try to do something," he said.

With four hours left to polls closing, voter turnout stood at 36 percent, down from 45 percent at the same time in the second round of the presidential vote.

Hope of end to war 

More than 20 parties are fielding candidates.

A pro-Moscow party called Opposition Platform–For Life is the second-most popular in opinion polls, with up to 13 percent of voter support.

One of the party's top candidates, Viktor Medvedchuk, is close to Vladimir Putin, claiming the Russian president is his daughter's godfather. The two met for talks in Russia just days before the vote.

Andrei Kraynenko, a 50-year-old machine operator in the southern port city of Mariupol, close to separatist frontlines, said he backed Medvechuk's party.

"I came here to vote because I want the war to finally end," he said.

More than 13,000 people have been killed since the conflict in Ukraine's east erupted in 2014. Sporadic fighting continues along the frontlines, with four Ukrainian soldiers killed by sniper fire and mine blasts since Friday.

Opinion polls show the party of ex-president Petro Poroshenko -- who Zelensky defeated in April -- at eight percent support and the party of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko at nine percent.

Only 424 of the 450 seats in Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, will be filled this election, as the rest represent Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, or territories controlled by separatists.

Of the 424 seats being filled, 225 members are elected from nationwide party lists, while the rest are directly elected in their districts.

Polling stations will close at 8:00 pm after 12 hours of voting.

Exit polls are expected immediately afterwards but will only show the results of party list voting, not the districts. Full, official results will be announced Monday.