Comedian leads presidential election in Ukraine

The results of the first round of the presidential election in Ukraine will pit incumbent President Petro Poroshenko against comedian and TV star Volodymyr Zelenskiy. A surprisingly unpredictable election process will continue through April.

Whichever way the second round of the Ukrainian presidential election on April 21st goes, it will be a historic outcome for Ukraine. If the incumbent Petro Poroshenko wins, it will be only the second time a sitting Ukrainian president has achieved re-election and unlike Leonid Kuchma’s second victory, this would be under the conditions of genuine open competition.

If comedian and satirist Volodymyr Zelenskiy wins, it would be the end of a whirlwind political journey that only truly started publicly in the dying seconds of last year. Poroshenko’s election posters simply carry the word dumai! (think!) – a clear implication that a vote for Zelenskiy would be a careless act. Ukrainian rock star Syatoslav Vakarchuk’s campaign slogan – “voting is not a joke” – seemed also to be a very clear warning against a vote for Zelenskiy. Nonetheless Zelenskiy has swept to a comfortable lead with 30 per cent of the vote as of the latest count, to Poroshenko’s share of around 16-18 per cent.

So far Zelenskiy has been short on policy details and celebrated the exit polls at his campaign headquarters with a round of table tennis. Yet, in a sense he was the one who turned the tables on Poroshenko by implying comments about “joke voting” belittled the voters.

Despite the significant first round margin it is too early to write Poroshenko off. To those who supported him in the first round, the reasons are familiar to those in the West: military success in defending the country from further incursions by Kremlin-backed forces in the east; the clinching of visa-free travel to the European Union; the significant achievement of overseeing the establishment finally of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church; and some level of economic stability, particularly more recently. Yet, in the absence of any credible candidate who espoused the legacy of the Maidan protests and with disappointment about how he has appeared to obfuscate over anti-corruption measures, many look to him as the least worst option.

To his detractors however, Poroshenko is an insidious presence, holding the reigns of power from presidential office to state security service and almost every layer in between. As such, it is claimed, he has enormous resources which he will be able to call upon in the second round. Far from the least worst option, this view characterises him as a ruthless businessman who has amassed considerable wealth during his presidency, even, it is claimed, benefiting from the war in Donbas. Such view casts him as a builder up of the classic post-Soviet power vertical, hollowing out the country to the extent that, rather than being a least worst option, he would be a threat to Ukraine’s very future existence. This perspective sees Zelenskiy far more favourably. Poroshenko will certainly need to call on considerable resources to make up ground and rumours that compromat (i.e. compromising material) is being prepared on Zelenskiy. Zelenskiy will also need to start opening up about what exactly he is promising the voters, which may make him vulnerable as the campaign goes on.

Zelenskiy’s sharp-witted satire, which he has continued to perform during the campaign, looks at face value like the very stuff of a healthy democracy. Yet surely for some observers in these circumstances it now takes on a somewhat sinister bent. Surprisingly however, the Ukrainian electorate has warmed to a candidacy built on promotion through television in this way, not least on the merging of reality with his fictional role as the corruption-eschewing “good president” in the popular TV show Servant of the People. How this blurs the lines of political campaigning and advertising, and how this shows that television is, despite the many developments to the contrary, still the opium of the masses in the country three decades after the end of communism, are topics that should keep researchers busy for a long time.

There is a lot to fear from a Zelenskiy victory, not least his political inexperience. It is entirely possible that, should he win, the Kremlin might move to test him militarily early on. On the plus side though, it could provide an unlikely opportunity to cement the state’s constitutionalism. A big test if Ukraine is to avoid the pitfalls of previous election outcomes will be for its democratic institutions, chiefly the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) and the Constitutional Court. After the 2010 election these were rendered subservient to the presidency in barely a week. In the parliamentary elections in 2014 Poroshenko was able to get a compliant bloc of deputies into parliament. It is far from certain that Zelenskiy’s fledgling party Sluha Narodu (“Servant of the People”, named after his TV series) would be in a position to make such inroads. A balance of power in Ukraine’s unusual parliamentary-presidential system, a necessity for greater co-operation across the political spectrum and the strengthening of democratic institutions, would be a worthwhile outcome. Unpredictability – proof of real democracy in action – could be the biggest victory.