September 3, 2019 / 9:16 AM / 17 days ago

Quick win for Zelenskiy as Ukraine parliament strips lawmakers` immunity

KIEV (Reuters) - Ukrainian lawmakers voted to strip themselves of immunity from prosecution on Tuesday, fulfilling an anti-corruption election promise by reformist President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

A lawmaker looks on before a session of Ukrainian parliament in Kiev, Ukraine August 29, 2019. Picture taken August 29, 2019. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

A former comedian with no prior political experience, Zelenskiy won the presidency by a landslide in April, tapping into voter anger over graft and low living standards.

Previously, lawmakers could only be stripped of immunity by a parliamentary vote on each individual case. But the new measure passed easily by 373 votes in the 450-seat parliament where Zelenskiy won a majority in a July snap election.

“We promised to remove immunity, we promised that there would be no people with a special status in Ukraine,” said Alexander Dubinsky, a lawmaker in Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People party.

“It is our duty to vote for this law and put people who are outside this hall on equal terms with those people in this hall.”

Before the vote, the president had said it was time to consign lawmakers’ immunity “to the dustbin of history”, arguing that 90% of Ukrainians wanted to see this happen.

Opponents, however, said removing lawmakers’ protection leaves them vulnerable to politically-motivated prosecutions.

Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, leader of the Voice party, said it would vote for the measure because all people should be equal before the law, but said those in power should not succumb to the temptation to abuse the change.

PRESIDENTIAL ZEAL

The law, which signals Zelenskiy’s commitment to push through reforms, will take effect from the start of next year.

His party is the first in Ukraine’s independent history to command a majority on its own.

Zelenskiy called a parliamentary election in July to give his party control over parliament and to form a new government.

A pre-election survey by the National Democratic Institute in May said only 5% of Ukrainians thought political parties represented citizens’ interests and just 3% said politicians met their expectations. On the other hand, 87% believed political parties were engaged in corruption.

On Monday, Zelenskiy’s new government announced a legislative agenda aimed at bringing more investment into Ukraine, including lifting a longstanding ban on sale of farmland.

Zelenskiy grew to national fame playing the TV comedy role of a schoolteacher who unexpectedly becomes president after a pupil films him making a foul-mouthed tirade against corrupt politicians and posts the video online.

His presidential campaign exploited the parallels with that fictional narrative, portraying him as an everyman who would stand up to a crooked political class.

Reporting by Natalia Zinets and Matthias Williams; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne

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