In Ukraine, A Comedic Presidential Candidate Is No Joking Matter
With just a day before the first round of the Ukrainian election, surprise candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy has cemented himself as the frontrunner over incumbent President Petro Poroshenko and opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. Zelenskiy, a comedian, actor and entrepreneur looks set to win the first round of elections Sunday, setting up a run-off with either Poroshenko or Tymoshenko, both of whom he is favoured to beat according to current polling. The election campaign, with 39 registered candidates in total is still surprisingly open even at this late stage, highlighting the strides Ukraine has made in recent years as a fledgling democratic nation.
While outsider, populist political candidates are by now not particularly unusual, the rise of Zelenskiy to frontrunner status as quickly as he has nonetheless surprised many. Like other outsider candidates in elections the world over, Zelenskiy has positioned himself as being a man of the people, running against a corrupt establishment. The name of his political party, “Servant of the People”, also the name of a successful political drama that he stars in, highlights the extent to which Zelenskiy leans into this narrative. In a similar manner to Donald Trump and other outsider candidates, he has expertly utilised social media and unconventional methods of campaigning to get his message across to the Ukrainian people. A recent example of this is his method of blending his role as a comedian with his presidential campaign. In a recent show in a football stadium in the city of Dniper, Zelenskiy switched between his stand-up routine and a campaign rally of sorts, making jokes about rival candidates while imploring his supporters to vote for him. It is this blurring of his role as an entertainer and a politician, reminiscent of his character in the show “Servant of the People” that has helped him stand out in a crowded field of candidates.
Running on an anti-corruption platform has proven central to Zelenskiy’s success in polling to date. Corruption is rife in Ukraine, with the intersection between the country’s powerful oligarchs and politicians proving especially contentious with the electorate. Current President Petro Poroshenko, having come to power on the back of the Euromaidan revolution of 2013-2014, has failed to usher in a promised revolution of democratic accountability and transparency within Ukraine. While some small changes have been made, major issues surrounding Ukraine’s legal and political institutions remain. Corrupt members of the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s Parliament, retain immunity privileges, while the nation’s oligarchs are able to have undue influence on the nation’s media and public utilities. Furthermore, Poroshenko has failed to prosecute anyone involved with the corruption of Viktor Yanukovych’s regime, whom fled to Russia in 2014 following the Euromaidan. In the process, Yanukovych stole an estimated $70 billion worth of wealth and assets from the Ukrainian people.
The election has significant implications for politics in the region, especially considering ongoing tensions between Ukraine and Russia. Years of conflict following the 2015 annexation of Crimea by Russia and the subsequent invasion of the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk have taken a toll on the nation. Many international observers are concerned that should either Zelenskiy or Tymoshenko win the election, the conflict may escalate once again. The US and NATO are particularly concerned with the prospect of a Tymoshenko victory, as she has come out and stated she wants to renegotiate or even walk away from the current Minsk agreement and attempt to negotiate another one with Vladimir Putin.
While Zelenskiy is in a strong position and will likely top a first-round poll, his victory is not yet assured. One of the reasons for this being, despite him having an enthusiastic base of support, much of this base are younger voters, particularly Millennials and Generation Z. Historically, these voters have turned out the least to vote. If turnout among this demographic remains low, the prospects of success for Zelenskiy are somewhat diminished. There is also the issue of a lack of a clear agenda, beyond fighting corruption. By contrast, Tymoshenko has centred her campaign around working class voters and drastically increasing the size of Ukraine’s welfare state, while Poroshenko has appealed to more conservative Ukrainians, emphasised by his campaign’s slogan “Army, Faith, Language”.
In the end, these factors may not end up mattering. The anti-establishment mood within Ukraine at present is palpable. Just 9 percent of voters are satisfied with the state of Ukrainian politics and the performance of the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s Parliament. In the current environment, an outsider candidate like Zelenskiy is primed for a successful run at the Presidency, despite questions about his experience as well as his ability to handle the geopolitical situation with Russia.