President Volodymyr Zelensky suffered a humiliating defeat as his party’s candidate lost the mayoral election in the president’s hometown of Kryvyi Rih in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast.
Kryvyi Rih is an industrial city of 630,000 people, some 400 kilometers southeast of Kyiv.
Zelensky’s Servant of the People party candidate Dmytro Shevchyk was the clear favorite of the election after his main opponent withdrew from the race five days before the runoff.
He still lost the race.
The election was won by Kostyantyn Pavlov, a candidate from the pro-Russian Opposition Platform – For Life party, who received 56% of the vote in the runoff, the local election commission reported on Dec. 7.
Pavlov wasn’t expected to take part in the runoff as he came only third in the first round, receiving a mere 9% of the vote.
But the runoff was reshuffled after incumbent Mayor Yuriy Vilkul withdrew, citing health problems.
Vilkul was the clear favorite, receiving 45% of the vote in the first round. Ukrainian media have previously reported that Zelensky’s party persuaded Vilkul to withdraw. He denied it.
After Vilkul was out of the way, Shevchyk, who received the president’s endorsement and took 25% in the first round, was expected to win the election.
However, Vilkul endorsed Pavlov, helping him secure the win.
The Kryvyi Rih mayoral election has enjoyed nationwide attention since the start of the campaign, both because it is the hometown of Zelensky and because Ukraine’s richest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, had ties to all three top candidates in the race.
Akhmetov is deeply invested in Kryvyi Rih, where he owns three major energy plants and has long been associated with the city’s ruling elite.
The campaign began with an unexpected nomination. On Aug. 31, the Servant of the People party, which has 247 seats in parliament, supported Shevchyk’s candidacy.
Before his nomination, Shevchyk was a top manager for Akhmetov’s Metinvest energy holding, heading various plants in the region.
Shevchyk previously represented Akhmetov’s Opposition Bloc party in the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast council.
The choice seemed odd since incumbent Mayor Vilkul was a longstanding political ally of Akhmetov before the election. Vilkul’s son Oleksandr Vilkul, one of the leaders of the Opposition Bloc, previously served as a top manager for Akhmetov’s companies and as the governor of Dnipropetrovsk Oblast under President Viktor Yanukovych, who enjoyed Akhmetov’s support.
Vilkul was elected mayor of Kryvyi Rih in 2010, when he represented Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. After the EuroMaidan Revolution ousted Yanukovych in 2014, Vilkul was re-elected, this time representing the Opposition Bloc — a successor to the Party of Regions.
In 2020, Vilkul decided to run on the ticket of his own party, Ukrainian Perspective. Vilkul’s party won the city council race, receiving 32% of the vote. The Servant of the People party came in second with 26% of the vote. The pro-Russian Opposition Platform – For Life party came third with 15% of the vote.
The Syla Liudey (Power of the People) party and the European Solidarity party led by ex-President Petro Poroshenko barely made it past the five percent threshold.
Vilkul also dominated the mayoral race. After falling only five percent short of a first-round win, he was expected to easily win in the runoff.
However, Vilkul decided to step down from the race five days before the second round. “Unfortunately, I’m not getting any younger. My health has begun to fail me. I will not be able to participate in the second round of the election,” Vilkul, 71, said on Nov. 17.
Vilkul’s son told the Ukrainska Pravda news website that Vilkul started experiencing heart problems after he registered to run. He continued the campaign, but after not winning in the first round, he decided to retire.
According to the law, Shevchyk was now to face Pavlov, who came third in the first round. Vilkul officially endorsed Pavlov and appeared in campaign ads supporting the low-profile pro-Russian candidate.
Even though the second round was rescheduled from Nov. 22 to Dec. 6, experts had little doubt that Shevchyk would win the election.
Political observers have speculated that there was a secret agreement between Zelensky, Akhmetov and Vilkul. Vilkul’s son Oleksandr Vilkul dismissed such accusations, and Zelensky’s office denied involvement.
However, despite being the favorite, Shevchyk faced strong opposition from Pavlov, bolstered by Vilkul’s popularity. Pavlov also wasn’t an unexpected ally for Vilkul. He used to represent the Akhmetov-linked Opposition Bloc party.
Shevchyk’s campaign largely depended on the personal support of Zelensky, who issued a statement in support of his candidate and actively promoted Shevchyk while visiting the city on Nov. 26. During the visit, the president posted a photo with his parents, who still live in the city, captioned: “Kryvyi Rih! I love it!”
But Zelensky’s support did not help Shevchyk. The Opposition Platform – For Life party won the mayoral seat, and ex-mayor Vilkul maintained control of the city council.