Ukraine’s bold choice of a wit to restore trust

The election of a TV comedian as president shows not only a mass rejection of a political elite but a deep demand for clean governance in a nation low on trust.

President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy gestures to supporters at his campaign headquarters after winning the April 21 election.

Until last Sunday when it elected a new president, Ukraine held a dubious world title. Only 9% percent of Ukrainians had faith in their government, the lowest in any democracy. In other former Soviet states, the level of trust is 48%. What’s more, Ukraine is one of the most corrupt and poorest nations in Europe.

With a reputation like that and possibly setting an example for other Soviet states, voters in Ukraine elected a total newcomer to politics, comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who had only played a president on a popular TV show. In the reality of a campaign, he inspired enough trust to win nearly three-quarters of the ballots. And he beat an incumbent president, Petro Poroshenko, who was seen as part of an entrenched elite that, while it stood up to Russian aggression, failed to change a political system that worsened poverty.

The choice of a novice to lead Ukraine reveals just how much voters want clean governance. “I am not a politician, I’m just a person, a simple person, who came to break this system,” Mr. Zelenskiy said of his victory.

To a large degree, however, Ukraine’s democratic system did work. Compared with other Soviet states, especially Russia, it held a competitive election and removed a sitting president who conceded gracefully and who will allow a peaceful transition of power. “To all the countries of the former Soviet Union: Look at us – everything is possible,” Mr. Zelenskiy said.

In addition, Ukraine is now the only country outside of Israel to have both a Jewish president and a Jewish prime minister (Volodymyr Groysman). For a country with a history of anti-Semitism, this is quite a feat. And it contradicts Russian propaganda that Ukraine is run by neo-Nazis.

Humor helped the neophyte candidate gain widespread trust. When a right-wing politician hinted that Mr. Zelenskiy was less than patriotic by being a Jew, he disarmed his opponent by threatening to “unleash” his Jewish mother on him. On the serious side of the campaign, it was his promises to speed up anti-corruption efforts that won over voters.

Since a pro-democracy, anti-Russia uprising in 2014 that brought Mr. Poroshenko to power, Ukraine has made only small steps against corruption, mostly out of pressure from international creditors. Mr. Zelenskiy plans to install reformers in anti-corruption bodies and bring transparency to military spending. And if he can dominate an election for a new parliament this fall, he plans to end the current immunity for lawmakers.

Ukraine’s best defense against Russia’s heavy hand in its affairs is clean governance and open elections. If Mr. Zelenskiy can maintain the trust put in him by voters, he will not only liberate his country from Moscow’s influence but end its low ranking as a country of little trust in government. As a TV star, his wit won him the trust of the people. Now he must keep it as president.

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