Ukraine is poised to elect a comedian as its next president

In a strange instance of art becoming life, Volodymyr Zelensky, who played the country’s president in a popular tv show, might soon assume the role for real. 

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Ukraine may be about to elect a comedian as its next president. Some might see this as a dark joke, yet the rise of Volodymyr Zelensky reflects voters’ deep disillusionment with their political leaders. The country faces unique challenges, including a stroppy neighbour that annexed part of its territory. Yet Ukrainians are by no means alone in their backlash against their country’s political elites.

In 2014, a group of American academics wrote a book called Politics is a joke!, about how TV comedians are remaking political life in the US. The book proved prescient. Two years later, a reality TV star was elected president of the United States. Now, in Ukraine, a professional comic is leading the presidential race.

After winning the first round on 31 March, Zelensky will face Ukraine’s current president, Petro Poroshenko, in the second round on 21 April. The odds look good for Zelensky: according to the official results he finished with 30 per cent of the vote, almost double Poroshenko’s 16 per cent gain.

The 41-year-old comedian made a name for himself playing the Ukrainian president in the television show Servant of the People. Zelensky plays a secondary school teacher who is elected president after a video of him railing against government corruption goes viral. First broadcast in 2015, the show is now in its third season, which opened just days before this year’s presidential election.

In a strange instance of art becoming life, Zelensky is now poised to become president for real.

His ascendancy reflects Ukrainians’ frustration as the country’s economic situation remains uncertain and the reform process slow. As some Ukrainian commentators have noted, Zelensky’s political trajectory dealt a “red card” to the political elite.

Reporting from Kiev during the Maidan protests in the winter of 2013, when hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians rose up against the country’s president Viktor Yanukovych who had abandoned a deal with the EU at the last minute, I felt a renewed sense of hope among protesters; for a better life, an end to corruption, and closer relations with the West. Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, an oligarch with a chocolate empire, was elected in May 2014. His predecessor Yanukovych fled to Russia.

Five years on, that hope has faded. Crimea, which Moscow annexed in March 2014, remains in Russian hands. Up to 13,000 people have been killed in the conflict in eastern Ukraine since then, according to the UN. The prospect of Ukraine joining the EU or NATO looks slim. Wages remain low and many people have moved abroad to work (there are at least one million working in neighbouring Poland). The country’s efforts to create a more open and competitive economy have “fallen short of expectations”, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Poroshenko has fallen prey to this dissatisfaction, as his poor result in the first round of elections showed. Ukrainians are tired of familiar faces: Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister who was one of the leaders of the Orange Revolution of 2004, finished the first round with a meagre 13 per cent, a few points behind Poroshenko.

Zelensky has ridden ahead on the back of Ukrainians’ desire for change. His lack of political experience and outsider status has so far proved an advantage rather than a handicap. He ran an optimistic and irreverent campaign that made use of social media and attracted young volunteers.

Yet some worry that Poroshenko’s lack of political expertise could endanger Ukraine’s relative stability and render him a puppet to Russian interests. Poroshenko’s reforms have been slow, but the incumbent president has stood firm against Moscow’s line and worked to integrate Ukraine with western institutions. While Poroshenko tailed Zelensky in the first round, the comedian has so far avoided debates and in-depth interviews – which may further betray his inexperience to the electorate.

Zelensky’s trajectory echoes that of the US, where Donald Trump’s “middle-finger appeal” is attractive to Americans who are distrustful of the political establishment. Across Europe, dissatisfaction with political elites has fuelled populism on the left and right. In Poland, people swapped a moderate, pro-European government for the erratic, populist and overtly religious Law and Justice party that promised change. Britain has experienced the populist appeal of Conservative Brexiteers and the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

This thirst for new leaders can work both ways. On the same day that Zelensky won the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election, political newcomer Zuzana Caputova was elected president in neighbouring Slovakia. Caputova, a former lawyer, represents a favourable turn in Central Europe that contrasts with the illiberalism of Hungarian and Polish leaders. She has vowed to crack down on corruption and supports gay marriage.

In Ukraine, it is unclear what Zelensky’s victory would mean for the country, other than registering discontent with the status quo. Whatever one thinks of his presidency, Poroshenko represents a known force in a country with many unknowns – including the next move of its neighbours in Moscow. In the second round on 21 April, Ukrainians will decide which of them they prefer. Europe and Russia will be watching.

Annabelle Chapman writes from Warsaw for the Economist and Monocle. She was previously based in Kiev.

Annabelle Chapman writes for the Economist and Monocle