Presidential Election Success for Ukrainian Comedian

Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky pictured in December 2018. (Wikimedia)

Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky pictured in December 2018. (Wikimedia)

The first round of presidential elections in Ukraine resulted in a surprise victory by comedian Volodymyr Zelensky in a sharp rebuke of incumbent President Petro Poroshenko. On April 4 the Central Election Commission released official results, sending Poroshenko scrambling to save face and leaving the international community in a state of bewilderment.

Zelensky’s only political experience is on a popular Ukrainian TV sitcom titled “Servant of the People,” in which he plays an idealized president of Ukraine.  In terms of real-life politics, Zelensky’s campaign platform has been criticized as naive and shaky on the details.  His main policy goals are to mediate with Russia regarding the Eastern regions of Ukraine and to fight cronyism and graft in government. The specifics of these two core goals are unclear.  Despite his unclear ideology, or perhaps because of it, Zelensky has found favor with a large percentage of the population who are fed up with the political establishment in Ukraine.

Since the 2004 Orange Revolution, politics in Ukraine have been a battleground for confrontation between the pro-West and the pro-Russia camps. After enduring economic stagnation, war against separatists, and political strife, the Ukrainian people are increasingly disillusioned by those in power. 62.4 percent of the electorate turned out to vote in the first round of presidential elections. Zelensky, TV comedian and political outsider, won 30 percent of the vote, leaving Poroshenko with just 16 percent.  As no candidate reached the 50 percent threshold, the two will advance to a run-off on April 21.

Before the government released official results, Poroshenko challenged Zelensky to a televised debate. Zelensky responded in an online video, accepting Poroshenko’s challenge and calling for the debate to be held in a national stadium that seats 70,000.

"I am appealing to Petro Poroshenko. You are calling me out for a debate. You thought I'd run away, freeze, hide," Zelensky quipped,"No. I am not you in 2014.”

"I am waiting for you here, at the Olimpiyskiy National Sports Complex," Zelensky concluded.

Despite Zelensky’s position as an anti-corruption crusader, many are worried by his close ties to oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky. Kolomoisky owns the television channel that broadcasted Zelensky’s sitcom, and the two are business partners on a number of ventures. Kolomoisky is currently embroiled in a banking bailout scandal: critics of Zelensky worry that his political momentum is propelled by Kolomoisky, who hopes for a favorable outcome in the lawsuit.

As a comedian with little practical experience, Zelensky may not prove to be Ukraine’s saving grace. However, the fact that Ukraine has managed to hold competitive, fair elections in which a political outsider has secured a clear advantage over the incumbent is a feat in itself.