TV comic takes lead in Ukrainian elections

No April fool: Volodymyr Zelenskiy has no political experience and has not bothered to campaign.

Last night a comedian with no real policies won over 30% of the votes in Ukraine and is the favourite to become president later this month. Why are so many nations electing anti-politicians?

Ukraine’s favourite TV show, Servant of the People, tells the story of a disillusioned teacher who accidentally becomes president after a video of him railing against corruption goes viral.

Now, fiction looks as if it might become reality.

Yesterday, Ukrainians went to the polls for the first election since the country’s pro-Russian president was toppled in the 2014 Maidan Revolution.

The front-runner is Volodymyr Zelensky, star of Servant of the People and one of Ukraine’s best-loved comedians.

According to exit polls last night he received 30.4% of the first round vote, with current president Petro Poroshenko second on 17.8%.

The two will now take part in a second-round vote on 21 April.

Zelensky’s politics are practically non-existent apart from promising to clamp down on corruption and be open to talks with Russia, whose separatists are fighting with the Ukrainian army near the eastern border.

The incumbent, billionaire oligarch Petro Poroshenko, is widely seen as corrupt. He is the target of one of Zelensky’s favourite jokes. Q: “Why does Poroshenko want a second term in office? A: Because he does not want a first term in jail.”

The world is getting used to such stunning upsets.

In 2017 in France, Emmanuel Macron became the youngest-ever president, elected with no party and no previous electoral experience.

After the 2018 Italian general election, the largest individual party in parliament was the Five Star Movement, founded by a professional comedian, Beppe Grillo.

In 2016 Americans elected Donald Trump, the first ever president who has entirely lacked the experience of both political and military service.

And yesterday in Slovakia, Zuzana Caputova became the country‘s first female head of state with almost zero political experience.

Last year a group of political scientists published a book, The Good Politician, which attempted to explain this trend.

Anti-politics

Since the Second World War, they demonstrated, European and American voters have become gradually more negative. One of the main reasons is that politicians are seen as out of touch, self-seeking and dishonest. The idea of what makes a good politician has changed. It used to be possible to be “different” (e.g. rich or upper-class) and still do good. Now voters want politicians to be “in touch”, “normal” and also effective.

The big questions are (i) to be a genuine person who is honest about who you are, do you have to come from outside the insincere world of professional politics — for example, business (Trump) or comedy (Grillo, Zelensky); and (ii) is politics itself a corrupt business of compromises and broken promises and do we desperately need a period of anti-politics in which things are run in a completely different way?

You Decide

  1. Would you vote for Zelensky?
  2. Why do so many voters dislike career politicians?

Activities

  1. Make a timeline of Ukranian politics and important events from 2014 to the present day.
  2. Pick a country in Europe and find out about the state of traditional political parties and populism there. Write a one-page article explaining what is going on.

Some People Say...

“Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”

Oscar Wilde

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Volodymyr Zelensky is a Ukrainian comedian and screenwriter who is now favourite to win the country’s presidential election. In his hit comedy, Servant of the People, he plays an anti-corruption teacher who accidentally becomes president. By the time he declared his candidacy in December, he was already leading the polls.
What do we not know?
Whether voters across Europe and indeed the world will continue to reject traditional politicians and parties in favour of newcomers and outsiders. In the wake of the financial crisis and the refugee crisis, many commentators say the trend is a symptom of widespread discontent among voters who feel like their situations are not improving while the “elite” get richer and richer.

Word Watch

Maidan Revolution
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Moscow continued to exert influence over Ukraine. President Viktor Yanukovych was removed from power amid violent anti-Russian riots in 20014. One hundred people died. Shortly after, Russia annexed the Crimea, a territory in Ukraine, to international outrage.
Second-round
The top two candidates with the most votes will progress to this head-to-head round.
Separatists
Unofficial Russian forces who are battling to take control of territory in eastern Ukraine.
Oligarch
A very rich business person who has the power to influence politics. Poroshenko made his fortune with a chocolate business.