“No Promises, No Excuses!” Such is the only political message of the comedian who could soon lead one of Europe’s largest countries. That outcome may seem absurd. Yet it could be an opportunity.
Volodymyr Zelensky scored a spectacular victory in the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election on March 31, winning some 30 percent of the votes, compared with about 16 percent for the incumbent, Petro O. Poroshenko. It was an astonishing result not only because the actor’s only political experience to date consists of playing the part of a president on TV, but also because he presented no platform, no policy proposal.
Branding himself “Ze,” he campaigned mostly via social media postings and by touring the country with his comedy shows. Instead of substantive messages, he offered banter and mockery. When he was accused of being a clown instead of a serious candidate, Mr. Zelensky proudly agreed, posting a video selfie on Instagram with a round red nose superimposed on his face.
His defiance has proved triumphant, and it may well make him president after the runoff vote on Sunday. Better to keep silent than to say anything in today’s Ukraine — the country with the least trust in its government, according to a recent Gallup survey.
Since the Orange Revolution in 2004, politicians of all stripes have promised to defeat corruption and pull Ukraine out of the mire of its transition from communism. After so many lies, failures and disappointments, such promises have turned into cruel clichés.
The government’s continuing war against the Russia-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine has also created a toxic public discourse. Journalists have been called traitors simply for seeking accreditation from the separatist authorities of the Donbas region. Using the word “conflict” instead of “war” or “Russia” instead of “aggressor state” can destroy a reputation. Say something, almost anything, and you expose yourself to being called too pro-Russian, too pro-Western, too nationalistic or not patriotic enough.
In this climate, Mr. Zelensky’s blank slate is an asset for him — as well as a canvas onto which people can paint whatever they want. And what do the people want right now? Apparently to punish Mr. Poroshenko for forgetting his own slogan to “live in a new way” from the 2014 election, and for returning instead to the comfort of the old, familiar Ukraine of corruption, poverty, inequality and dirty politics. Back then, a popular revolt had just toppled President Viktor F. Yanukovych, who fled the country in disgrace. The rejection of Mr. Poroshenko today is less thrilling but no less momentous.
Just a few weeks ago, before the first round of voting, he was presenting himself as the only possible head of state, the nation’s savior. His political message had become markedly conservative. “Army. Language. Faith.” Those three ingredients, the president repeatedly emphasized, were the keys to the “unique national identity” of Ukraine — even though the country is bilingual and secular.
At a rally in Cherkasy, central Ukraine, earlier this year, a local activist asked the president if he was going to fight corruption. Mr. Poroshenko answered, “I have a request for you: Light a candle — because you are a nonbeliever — and God will calm you.” He called the man, who had spoken in Russian, a “Moscow provocateur.” A video of the exchange went viral. Mr. Poroshenko’s arrogance was then punished in the voting booths.
After that he began to lose his nerve. In the opening move of the campaigning for Sunday’s runoff, Mr. Poroshenko’s team posted billboards that portrayed him facing off with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. The move was widely ridiculed: Mr. Poroshenko, having nothing left to offer, appeared to be grasping at nationalist straws and trying to instill fear in a boogeyman. His staff promptly took down the ads.
In a poll taken April 9–14, 17 percent of respondents said they intended to vote for Mr. Poroshenko and more than 48 percent for Mr. Zelensky. And while Mr. Poroshenko has misstepped since the first round of voting, Mr. Zelensky, true to form, has done little except mock his competitor. After challenging the incumbent to a debate, Mr. Zelensky stood him up last Sunday. (The two men disagreed about when to hold the event.) Another debate is scheduled for April 19.
Mr. Zelensky’s supporters are often accused of confusing the TV comedy series in which he plays the president, “Servant of the People,” with real life. The charge is paradoxical because the show is ruthless toward everyday Ukrainians: If people vote for Mr. Zelensky hoping this fiction will become reality, they are endorsing a very unflattering portrayal of themselves. The satire isn’t only about cynical politicians and corrupt oligarchs. It is also about sycophants who abuse their neighbors but worship ministers’ parking spaces, and about housewives pressuring husbands to accept bribes so they can buy a fur coat.
The series, in a word, is about how the corruption of ordinary citizens translates into the corruption of the political class. And if that is the closest thing Mr. Zelensky has to a political manifesto, then his central message is this: We are all to blame for what we have.
When during the campaign, he was asked to share his plans for the presidency, “Ze” simply said that he would ask the people what they want through popular referendums and ideas crowdsourcing. Whether he meant this or not, such statements alone restore agency to common people and signal that this election may be an occasion for Ukrainians to push for more transparent governance and greater public participation.
Periodic uprisings that replace one figurehead with another, hopefully better, figurehead have not been enough. This abnormal election may announce a new model for societal change — from the ground up, through daily civic effort and personal responsibility. Put differently: What a Zelensky presidency will look like will depend primarily on ordinary Ukrainians.
They have sustained democracy by keeping a check on presidential power. Now, they will need to keep a check on the new president himself. Mr. Zelensky is inexperienced, politically amorphous and thought to have ties to the oligarch Ihor V. Kolomoisky. Clearly, he is no savior. But if Ukrainians can capitalize on this fact, plain as it is, the comedian’s election to the presidency could be a historic opportunity for them to help themselves.
Alisa Sopova is an independent journalist from Ukraine.
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