Why frustrated Ukrainians may elect a comedian as president

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Whom do voters turn to when elected leaders disappoint? Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko looks set to be trounced in elections Sunday, but not because of approval for his opponent, a TV comedian.

Efrem Lukatsky/AP
People pass by a billboard depicting Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin facing off in Kiev, Ukraine, on April 11. The billboard reads, “A decisive choice.”

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Ukrainians seem ready to overwhelmingly elect a political novice, a comedian whose main claim to fame is that he played a president on TV, to the country's real top office when they cast ballots Sunday. According to the latest survey, 72% of decided voters plan to vote for Volodymyr Zelenskiy, with just 25% choosing the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko.

Mr. Zelenskiy is clearly riding the tidal waves of negative feelings toward Mr. Poroshenko that have been building for some time. The president was handily elected five years ago in an emergency race following the Maidan Revolution. But he has since presided over the slow demise of most of the hopes for peace, economic renewal, and an end to corruption and oligarchic rule that he once campaigned on.

“Poroshenko lost this election at least a year ago,” says Ruslan Bortnik, director of a Kiev think tank. “The most burning issues of today are corruption and poverty. Not a single corrupt official has been punished during Poroshenko’s five years, and half the population can’t cope with the rising costs of utilities. ... It seems like many Ukrainians would rather vote for a telephone pole than for Poroshenko.”

It may be one of the most spectacular political miscalculations of all time.

Election billboards across Ukraine feature a stern-jawed incumbent President Petro Poroshenko facing off with his main opponent in second-round voting for the presidency this Sunday. However, the person he is angrily staring down is not his very real Ukrainian rival, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, but Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Those billboards may stand as a stark symbol of why Mr. Poroshenko’s campaign for reelection appears to have hit a wall.

Ukrainians seem ready to overwhelmingly elect a political novice, a comedian whose main claim to fame is that he played a president on TV, when they cast ballots this Sunday. According to the latest survey, carried out by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), 72% of decided voters plan to vote for Mr. Zelenskiy, with just 25% choosing Mr. Poroshenko. The election’s first round on March 31 was contested by 39 candidates, and Mr. Zelenskiy topped the polls with 30%, followed by Mr. Poroshenko with 17%.

Many in Ukraine’s stunned establishment are reportedly scrambling to build bridges with the newcomer, who largely remains a black box regarding his political, economic, and social policies. A Russian-speaker from eastern Ukraine who barely speaks Ukrainian, Mr. Zelenskiy is clearly riding the tidal waves of negative feelings toward Mr. Poroshenko that have been building for some time. The incumbent president, handily elected five years ago in an emergency election following the Maidan Revolution, has presided over the slow demise of most of the hopes for peace, economic renewal, and an end to corruption and curbing oligarchic rule that he once campaigned on.

“Poroshenko lost this election at least a year ago, when his negative rating reached 50%,” says Ruslan Bortnik, director of the Ukrainian Institute of Analysis and International Relations, an independent Kiev think tank. “The most burning issues of today are corruption and poverty. Not a single corrupt official has been punished during Poroshenko’s five years, and half the population can’t cope with the rising costs of utilities. ... It seems like many Ukrainians would rather vote for a telephone pole than for Poroshenko.”

Frustration with Poroshenko

In an effort to reverse his sagging fortunes, Mr. Poroshenko hit upon patriotic themes to rouse the population against the external enemy, Russia. Hence the billboards. But that now appears to have been a bad miscalculation.

“Poroshenko’s mistake was to champion anti-Russian positions and rhetoric, which served to distract people from domestic Ukrainian problems,” says Alexander Okhrimenko, president of the Kiev-based independent Ukrainian Analytical Center. “It worked up to a point, but over the past five years Ukrainians have gotten tired of it.”

Efrem Lukatsky/AP
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko gestures as he poses for a photo with his supporters on April 14 at the Olympic stadium in Kiev ahead of the presidential elections.

Mr. Poroshenko’s election slogan, “Army! Language! Faith!,” was designed to highlight his achievements in promoting Ukrainian nationalism in the face of Russian expansionism. He did indeed rebuild Ukraine’s once decrepit army into a capable fighting force, held the line against Russian-backed rebels in the east, and stood up to Moscow when it seized Ukrainian warships and sailors in a murky incident in the Kerch Strait between Russia and Russian-annexed Crimea last year.

But his efforts to promote the Ukrainian language have mostly generated friction in a country where both languages have always coexisted peacefully. And his crowning achievement, obtaining autocephaly, or independence, for a Ukraine-based Orthodox Church, appears to be sowing mainly division so far.

“Poroshenko and his team have warned so many times about Russian aggression, even giving dates when the Russian army was supposed to invade Ukraine,” says Mr. Okhrimenko. “People just stopped taking it seriously. Poroshenko put his stake on Ukrainian nationalism, but real nationalists are only about 10 percent of the population. The majority of Ukrainians do not perceive Russia as an enemy.”

Indeed, a public opinion survey conducted earlier this year by KIIS and the independent Russian pollster Levada found that attitudes are improving in both countries, despite all the acrimony, mutual sanctions, and conflict of the past five years. The survey found that 77% of Ukrainians hold “positive” attitudes toward Russians personally, and a clear majority, 57%, reported their view of Russia itself as “positive” – up from 30% four years ago. That doesn’t mean that Ukrainians are pro-Putin: 69% said their attitude to the Kremlin leader was “bad” or “very bad.”

Despite years of mutual sanctions, Russia remains Ukraine’s biggest single trading partner, and trade has actually been on the upswing lately.

Mr. Poroshenko’s efforts to rapidly “decommunize” Ukraine also raised hackles in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, where people were suddenly ordered to stop displaying Soviet-era symbols on occasions like Victory Day even though in those regions most people’s ancestors served in the Red Army during World War II. Government attempts to promote wartime Ukrainian “fighters for Ukrainian independence” – despite records of many such fighters collaborating with the Nazis and participating in the Holocaust – may have further alienated many Ukrainians.

“Attempts to force only one language, to rewrite history, to attack holidays like Victory Day, made a lot of reasonable voters turn away from Poroshenko,” says Mr. Bortnik. “He stirred up conflicts with neighbors like Poland and Hungary, and even some of our Western partners started to get fatigued with Ukraine.”

A hard road for Zelenskiy

Despite the fears of some Western observers that Mr. Zelenskiy is “dangerously pro-Russian,” it seems most unlikely that, if elected, he will significantly alter Ukraine’s long-term reorientation away from Moscow and toward the West. Indeed, there was an actual pro-Russian candidate in the election’s first round, Yuriy Boiko, who astounded many by finishing in fourth place with 12% of the overall vote. In some places, such as the Ukrainian-controlled parts of the Donbas and Odessa, Mr. Boiko actually topped the polls.

Mr. Zelenskiy has said he will seek dialogue with Russia and that “winning peace for Ukraine” is at the top of his priority list. Experts say that is not likely to include making territorial compromises. Beyond that, little is known of his specific intentions.

Efrem Lukatsky/AP
Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukrainian actor and presidential candidate, hosts a comedy show at a concert hall in Brovary, Ukraine, on March 29.

“Peace is number one. People are tired of war. They want to turn over a new page,” says Vadim Karasyov, director of the independent Institute of Global Strategies in Kiev. “Zelenskiy represents a new Ukraine. He wants Ukraine to be a normal East European country, not to be under control of the Kremlin or Europe or the U.S. – a Ukraine that is not the subject of geopolitical competition. People want an end to all this tension and hatred. That is what the huge support for Zelenskiy represents.”

If elected, he will face massive obstacles. He does not have a party, and unless he quickly assembles support in the Supreme Rada (Ukraine’s parliament), he may find himself stymied at least until parliamentary elections roll around in October.

“After the elections, Zelenskiy’s situation will be colossally difficult,” says Sergey Gaiday, head of the Gaiday.com political consultancy. “If he can’t curb corruption, there will be many trials ahead for him. The key issue here is not just to get rid of Poroshenko, but to pass from oligarchic rule to people’s power. The election campaign will seem easy compared to what Zelenskiy will face afterward.”

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