There’s a joke circulating in the Ukrainian capital: “For years, we have voted for serious people, and all we got is farce. So why not vote for a comedian and see what happens?”
Ukrainians are deeply ambivalent about the presidential election coming up on March 31. About a fifth of the electorate is undecided. Many have lost what little trust they had in the government. This widespread atmosphere of discontent has created an opening for an unlikely dark horse candidate: the comedian Vladimir Zelenskiy.
A Russian speaker from the southern city of Kryvy Rih, Zelenskiy looks poised to garner votes among those disillusioned with Ukraine’s status quo and doubtful about the prospect of corruption being tackled under more traditional candidates. Two polls published last week showed him pulling ahead of his rivals.
The self-made businessman is seen as different and apart from the predatory elite that has dominated Ukrainian politics since its independence in 1991. He’s as out-of-left-field as they come — the star of the satirical TV show, “Servant of the People,” in which he plays a rural teacher who ends up getting elected president of Ukraine after an anti-corruption rant goes viral.
Having announced his candidacy on New Year’s Eve, Zelenskiy seems intent on repeating his performance — this time in real life. He has crowdfunded his election campaign, a move that helped him nab free air time and boost his profile on social networks. For voters across the country — but especially in southeast Ukraine, which has suffered the most from the ongoing war with Russian-backed separatists — a vote for Zelenskiy is seen as a way to stick it to the country’s corrupt political establishment.
For all his faults and peculiarities, Zelenskiy does stand a chance of becoming president.
Ukrainians have plenty of reasons to want to cast a protest ballot. The country currently ranks as Europe’s poorest, and despite progress on long-overdue reforms, key sectors of the economy continue to be dominated by oligarchs. High-level corruption goes unpunished, and the ongoing war in the country’s eastern Donbas region is draining resources and creating a sense of disillusionment. Five years after the Maidan Revolution that removed former President Viktor Yanukovych from power, 70 percent of Ukrainians think the country is going in the wrong direction.
That’s not to say that Zelensksiy’s path to power will not be more challenging than that of the character he plays on TV. Riding high in the polls with up to 20 percent is Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister and one of Ukraine’s most notorious political survivors.
Known as the "gas princess" for her role in shady corrupt dealings back in the 1990s, Tymoshenko may not be a terribly likeable candidate. But that doesn’t mean she can’t win. Indeed, with no candidate predicted to win in the first round, she’s almost certain to be able to clinch a spot in the runoff scheduled for April 21.
Her high negatives — 64 percent of Ukrainians say they won’t vote for her — reflect her disastrous track record in government and an ongoing smear campaign connecting her to Russian President Vladimir Putin. But she’s also an effective populist, capable of whipping up opposition to the government’s austerity program.
Her Fatherland party is also the only country-wide political structure that can compete effectively against what people refer to politely as “the administrative resources” of the incumbent, President Petro Poroshenko: Vote-buying, paid news and other crude election shenanigans are facts of life in Ukrainian politics.
Poroshenko also can’t be written off. Although some 77 percent of the electorate have said they won’t vote for him, his efforts to mobilize patriotic voters by using the threat of Russian aggression — of which Ukrainians were reminded in December, following a flare-up with Moscow in the Kerch Strait — may still convince voters to back him. The recent separation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from Moscow’s control could also bolster his chances.
Zelenskiy, in contrast to his two most prominent opponents, lacks a regional party structure to mobilize voters and participate in local election commissions that count the vote. His connection to oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi is also a major vulnerability. Kolomoyskyi, who owns 1+1, the popular TV channel that broadcasts Zelenskiy’s show and is rumored to be backing him, is embroiled in a legal dispute with the government over his alleged mismanagement of Privatbank, the country’s largest bank, which he used to control. The bank was nationalized in 2016, costing taxpayers more than $5 billion.
Nor is Zelenskiy free of the taint of corruption himself. Investigative reporters recently uncovered evidence that his production company Kvartal 95 earns money from Russia, via a Cypriot company, contradicting his assertions that he has closed his business ventures in Russia.
And yet, for all his faults and peculiarities, Zelenskiy does stand a chance of becoming president. Recent polls suggest he is the only candidate with a good chance of beating Tymoshenko in the second round of voting in April, when voters who supported Poroshenko are expected to turn against the gas princess and rally behind the comedian. The only other candidate to come close is former Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko, who is trying to unite the democratic opposition but, with a rather dull campaign, will have a tougher time making it to the second round.
The outcome of Ukraine’s elections is still impossible to predict, but what’s certain is that the campaign won’t be clean. Poroshenko and others are sure to resort to trolls, bots and dirty tricks to improve their media image and attack opponents.
Zelenskiy real appeal may be even more basic: a promise of an end to politics as usual.
That’s going to hurt. But there’s also a good chance that the inevitably dispiriting mudslinging could end up benefiting Zelenskiy, still seen by many in the country as a political insurgent.
He had hoped to present himself as a peace candidate — promises to end the war in Donbas five years ago helped catapult Poroshenko to election victory after all. But his real appeal may be even more basic: a promise of an end to politics as usual.
Of course, whether he’ll offer a true departure is a story for another day.