The rebellion: Servant of the People MPs unexpectedly reject president’s law, but for how long?
During the three weeks since the opening session of the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian Parliament), the elected deputies of Servant of the People fulfilled all the whims of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy — adopting presidential bills with little debate and lacking proper consideration. In some circles, worries about semi-authoritarianism were raised.
But that changed on 20 September when a significant number of party legislators rejected a major presidential bill. The bill would reduce the investigation of a People’s Deputy of Ukraine (Member of Parliament or MP), to the status of an ordinary procedure. For the first time, there was trouble in paradise. Some deputies went so far as to openly criticize the president.
How far-reaching is this “rebellion?” Does it mean that the specially constructed hierarchy of the president’s party is crashing down and that a battle between the president and the Rada — traditional for Ukraine — is again underway?”
“Dissolve them all to hell! It’s deceit!” shouted Andriy Bohdan, head of the Presidential Office, at Dmytro Razumkov, chairperson of the Rada. His outburst came when the presidential bill was rejected after the second, final round of voting.
Bohdan can shout himself hoarse. According to the Ukrainian Constitution, the president can not dissolve the parliament unless one of three very limited conditions are met — not that constitutional practice would mean much for Bohdan.
Up to this point, the “Servants” have been behaving more like “servants,” voting on draft bills they have barely read. Parliamentary regulations are frequently ignored in this new Rada, and the practice is getting far too close to routine.
Yet, this last round of voting saw only 184 out of 254 of the party’s deputies voting for the president’s bill.
What is the bill about and why deputies didn’t support it
The new president’s bill would amend the Criminal Code to simplify the procedure of searching and wiretapping MPs. Allowing the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), State bureau of investigations (DBR) and other agencies to search and wiretap deputies — as proposed in the bill — is the necessary step to finish the cancellation of deputies’ immunity. The Criminal Code only allows the investigation of an MP after the consent of parliament. To drop this requirement would effectively make deputies equal to ordinary Ukrainians.
Overall, the purpose of this bill is not as controversial as some previous amendments to the Constitution. Further, stipulating that the NABU has the right to investigate deputies is among the requirements of the IMF, within the framework of the anti-corruption agenda.
Although generally welcomed by the deputies, the bill raised up one significant concern. The president’s first draft of the bill reintroduced the ability to start an investigation from the moment a suspect is first identified, and then carry it forward indefinitely.
This could result in a case remaining open for years, without authorities having to bring forward any suspicions of wrongdoing or closing the case. At the same time, they would retain the right to carry out searches and seizures of documents, and to pressure witnesses — without any restrictions at all.
Mykola Kniazhytskyi, deputy of Poroshenko’s European Solidarity party stated: “If the investigator deliberately delays the investigation of the criminal case, and this lasts more than a year, the citizen should have the right to appeal to the prosecutor to dismiss the case. But if the prosecutor refuses to do this, such a refusal should be the subject of consideration by the court.”
Notwithstanding, more important than nuances of the law is the fact that the president’s party actually voted against his initiative. Demanding amendments amounts to a protest against the president and defiance of the rigid structure of party control.
A pyramid — how rigid party control was established in Servant of the People
Serhiy Taran, Ukrainian political scientist and manager of the center for political analysis “Eidos,” claimed in June that “Even at the stage of forming the list of candidates from the Servant of the People, analysts repeatedly pointed to the risk of split. First, there were several centers for the formation of candidate pools, and second, too many different people gathered there with different values and principles.”
Servant of the People includes activists, experts, performers, journalists, athletes and many more individuals who are completely new to politics. And there is no small number of them.
In Ukraine’s mixed electoral system, half of all Members of Parliament are elected by the plurality/majoritarian voting system and the other half are elected through the proportional representation system. The majoritarians are more autonomous and can even withdraw from the party, unlike their counterparts.
As a result of the August elections, almost all majoritarian MPs in the “Servant…” are totally random persons. Many of them simply applied on the party’s website and passed a short evaluation for candidacy.
A symbol of President Zelenskyy’s elected deputies is Serhiy Shtepa — a photographer from Zaporizhzhia with no experience in politics whatsoever. Having gone through the online nomination process, Shtepa managed to win in a district where Viacheslav Bohuslaev, a notorious director of the Motor Sich enterprise, had been people’s deputy for more than a decade. Shtepa’s victory was touted as a shining example of breaking social barriers for ordinary Ukrainians who aspire to the highest sphere of government — the Verkhovna Rada.
In reality, though, not all is what it seems to be on the surface. All deputies were required to sign a memorandum of responsibility. Although a fairly informal document, it includes deputies’ consent to “voluntarily” comply with certain practices; e.g., voting for bills envisaged by the party program, no “button-pushing” (a reprehensible practice of voting in place of absent deputies), no right to leave their parliamentary fraction and other such questionable rules.
Where media is concerned, according to The Babel, Servant of the People has instituted an unprecedented rule for communicating with the press. The party has limited communication with journalists to three spokespeople — clearly a strategy to control messaging.
Moreover, only 50 pre-selected deputies, out of a total of 254, can appear in TV programs. These constraints on elected officials are unusually confining — although they may actually have reason. For example, Newly-elected MP Mykola Tyshchenko had to walk away from a journalist because he couldn’t name Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk — elected by Verkhovna Rada only days earlier. No doubt, the party endured considerable embarrassment — thus, keeping a leash on their deputies’ interactions with the press might just be necessary.
The most rigid dictates of the party’s executive are their inner mechanisms of control. An article published by Ukrayinska Pravda, based on several interviews with deputies, revealed that holding together this catch-all mass of deputies is not an easy task. Organization is key. For this purpose, 15 groups of 15 to 20 MPs were created randomly from 254 deputies. Each of these factions was assigned a group leader, who acts as a deputy chairperson of the party — 15 deputy chairpersons are currently assigned.
The main function of the chairpersons is coordination — to keep everyone on the same page. Each group leader has a Chat Room in WhatsApp where they transmit relevant information to their team, on a real-time basis. They post agendas; provide deputy positions on bills; update faction plans; organize meetings; and, most importantly, outline the narrative of the Presidential Office and the Cabinet, as well as others in executive roles. Some group leaders are even assisting MPs in hiring assistants and even in registering bills.
One of the group leaders describes work this way: “It’s like a mom: you take care of them, because they constantly want something from you: ‘What is our agenda?’ … ‘What should I tell the journalists?’ … and the like.”
Group leaders don’t just provide information down the ladder to members of their team. They perform a reciprocal role. They convey the inclinations of MPs up the ladder to the leadership of the party, particularly to Davyd Arakhamiya, chairperson of the Servant of the People parliamentary faction.
“The group leaders are also responsible for the voting of their deputies. If somebody suddenly missed the vote or pressed “against,” the group leaders approaches the deputy and asks, ‘Why didn’t you vote?’ … What’s the problem? … ‘Why were you in the cafe, not in the parliamentary hall? Then it all comes to the Presidential Office, where they monitor the actions and ensure no one sells-out on the party,” says a Servant of the People deputy.
Leaders of the 15 groups meet regularly for briefings, which include the heads of all committees, as well as party Chairperson Davyd Arakhamiya, Verkhovna Rada Chairperson Dmytro Razumkov and others. They discuss the agenda of the parliament and ascertain the vote-count before the actual voting.
Every week, Servant of the People holds a large party meeting. Special guests typically include the president, the prime minister, cabinet ministers and members of the Presidential Office. Andriy Bohdan, head of the office is always present.
Even though Servant of the People MPs are in direct contact with the Presidential Office, not all MPs blindly follow the president’s instructions. Apparently, major disruptions have occurred at least two times and are been described as “a huge mess in the messengers.” Deputies were asking dozens of questions and openly voicing opposition to the president’s bills.
“What does it mean, ‘we are in debt to Zelenskyy’? Yes, we went to the Rada under his brand. With the same success, he could have gathered some homeless under the fence, they would have won the elections too. But for some reason, he decided to put us on the list. I have a reputation, and I put it at risk just as Zelenskyy does. It is an equal exchange. My life does not end with Servant of the People, I will have to look for a new job in five years. So I do not want to become an idiot,” said a well-known deputy.
Will Servant of the People MPs finally become members of parliament rather than members of Zelenskyy’s team
Recent conflicts in the party actually provide hope that the evolution of “Servants” into true MPs will happen. By radically pressuring deputies, Zelenskyy’s Presidential Office only accelerates resistance and fragmentation of the party. During a recent meeting at the Presidential Office, deputies elected by the majoritarian system asked what was the status of subsidies for their districts. Bohdan retorted: “There will be no majoritarkas [subsidies allotted to districts of deputies] anymore.” Not surprising, one of the deputies shot back: “Stop making us a flock of rams.”
As noted above, half of all Servant of the People deputies were elected according to the majoritarian procedure, and have greater flexibility. Maintaining control over them can be challenging, and an attempt to do so caused a major scandal for Zelenskyy.
The president attempted to introduce a bill, titled “On Amendments to the Verkhovna Rada Regulations,” which would mandate the same stringent rules for majority deputies as exist for proportional deputies. However, majoritarians refused to support the bill because it would impede any possibility of leaving the party. Furthermore, they were outraged upon learning that the same control mechanisms imposed upon their counterparts were “hidden” in another presidential bill. Once revealed, yet another “mess in the discussions” occurred.
Attempting to smooth over ruffled feathers, party chairperson Arakhamiya said that the deputies’ refusal to vote for the amendments was caused by “misunderstanding a special informational operation.”
However, there’s no denying that a significant number of deputies from the Servant of the People party are not happy with the turbo mode of undertakings, and have become sceptical of presidential bills. This development is exactly what provides hope that, after a false start, the normal work of parliament will be restored.