A comedian is leading the race for the Ukrainian presidency, in a contest that comes to a climax when Ukrainians go to the polls this Sunday March 31.
After mostly slamming politicians for years, comedian Volodymyr Zelensky has taken a surprise political turn: Now, the young upstart might just be Ukraine’s next president, and his chances are pretty good.
Zelensky has a 20 to 25 percent share of the vote, ahead of incumbent Petro Poroshenko and opposition candidate andand former Prime Miniser Yulia Tymoshenko, according to opinion polls.
In his campaign operation, which is peppered with humorous twists and turns, Zelensky promises people the Ukraine of their dreams: a country without corruption, with high salaries and pensions, a fast internet and good roads.
There should be more “power for the people,” he argues — more referendums, more justice and more security. The war in Eastern Ukraine should be ended, Zelensky says, though without going into detail about how exactly this can happen. In a rare TV appearance, he merely said negotiations are necessary. Some observers in Kyiv, however, suspect that Ukraine’s most popular presidential candidate avoids talk shows so as not to have to admit to a lack of expert knowledge. Many other critics,
opponents and observers describe his approach as pure populism.
Interestingly, the comedian has previously slammed political populism, arguing in a TV interview years ago that his business was show business and he din’t trust the promises made on the political campaign trail. “When well-known personalities outside politics promise you the moon, that is pure populism,” he said at the time. But that was about seven years ago, when perhaps he never imagined he could ever run for president.
Lively 41-year-old Zelensky has a distinctive, slightly hoarse yet pleasant voice. The son of a university professor from Kryvyi Rih, a city in the heart of the iron ore industry region in southeastern Ukraine, he was the talented class clown who rose to become perhaps the country’s most famous and most successful comedian. Political satire is his game.
Under the name Studio Kvartal 95, Zelensky and a group of other cabaret artists have been touring Ukraine for almost 20 years, lampooning the country’s top politicians. They produce TV shows, feature films and comedy series, including the “Servants of the People” series in which Zelensky plays a history teacher who is elected president. Accordingly, that is what he named his new party, which was more or less unknown until recently.
Observers explain Zelensky’s success with many Ukrainians’ longing for fresh faces in politics. The candidate aims primarily at younger voters who know him and find him funny — people like Andriy, a 31-year-old IT expert from a provincial town in eastern Ukraine. “He seems to be the only candidate who can do better,” says Andriy, who is disappointed with incumbent Poroshenko and does not trust opposition honho Tymoshenko. Corruption has recently become “even worse,” he says.
For many critics, they do not see Zelensky as an independent political figure; they suspect an alliance between the comedian and Ihor Kolomoyskyi, a once-influential businessman from Dnipro, the former Dnipropetrovsk. The alleged alliance, they say, aims to prevent another mandate for Poroshenko. Zelensky announced his candidacy on New Year’s Eve from Kolomoyskyi’s “1+1” TV station, which also features the comedian’s shows and films. The president’s New Year’s Day speech was postponed for his brief video message — a clear snub against the incumbent.
Yet despite high poll numbers, Zelensky’s victory in the presidential election seems unlikely: He is simply too polarizing. But he may well make re-election more difficult for Poroshenko, who is probably at least somewhat worried about the prospect of a runoff. The most likely beneficiary of such a scenario would be perpetual also-ran Tymoshenko, who is currently in second place in the polls and could better draw in disappointed Poroshenko supporters into a runoff than could Zelensky. But even if the comedian does not succeed, getting name recognition on the ballot is already a victory, given that he is simultaneously warming up for the autumn 2019 parliamentary elections. His party is ahead in parliamentary polling and could be one of the big winners.
The presidential election in Ukraine is scheduled for March 31 — coincidentally, the day before April Fool’s Day, on which the results are announced. For Zelensky, that’s great: “April 1 is a fantastic date for me to win. After all, I am a clown, aren’t I?” the comedian-turned-candidate said in an interview with the online newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda.