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When art imitates life: A TV comic's journey to Ukraine's presidency

  • 2 Apr 2019

Volodymyr Zelensky was cast in the role of a history teacher who accidentally became president in a TV show in Ukraine. He's now taking the lead in the country's presidential race and it's no joke.

Ukrainian comic actor and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky reacts following the announcement of the first exit poll in a presidential election at his campaign headquarters in Kiev, Ukraine, March 31, 2019. ( Reuters Archive )

Three shadowy oligarchs are surveying Ukraine's Maidan square from a rooftop balcony while sipping their drinks. 

"It's one week before the election. We worked hard for our candidates. They're almost neck and neck, now let the best man win," says one.

"What good will that bring me?" asks another.

This is a scene from "Servant of the People," which is one of Ukraine’s most popular TV shows where an honest history schoolteacher becomes president by accident.

The teacher fights against corruption caused by the country’s old way of doings and shadowy oligarchs and corrupt politicians. 

And Volodymyr Zelensky is playing that role. In real life, he now is is leading the race to become Ukraine's next president. 

No joke, Zelensky is taking the lead

Comedian Volodymyr Zelensky is the favourite to become Ukraine's president after results on Monday showed him dominating the first-round vote despite many initially dismissing his candidacy as a joke.

The 41-year-old's political experience has been limited to playing the president in his TV show but he leapfrogged establishment candidates amid public frustration over corruption and a stalling economy.

Results published on April Fools' Day, an irony not lost on Ukrainian social media, showed Zelensky taking 30 percent in Sunday's first round, almost double the 16 percent vote share of incumbent Poroshenko.

The two will meet in a run-off vote on April 21 after almost 93 percent of counted ballots showed ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko and dozens of other candidates falling out of the race.

If Zelensky wins then, as polls and analysts suggest, he will take the reins of one of the poorest countries in Europe,  a nation of 45 million people fighting Russian-backed separatists in its industrial east.

Can oligarchs influence him?

"It is impossible to influence me," Zelensky told the news website Gordon in December.

However, his relationship with one of the country's wealthiest tycoons has stoked worries among some investors and voters, and accusations from his political opponents, that he is in the pocket of oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky. 

One of Ukraine's most popular TV channels 1+1, owned by Kolomoisky, has given Zelensky a powerful platform in recent months during his meteoric rise to the brink of the presidency.

On Saturday, a day before Zelensky won the first round of the presidential contest and set up a run-off with the incumbent Petro Poroshenko, 1+1 filled its schedule with back-to-back shows by the comedian and actor.

Both Zelensky and Kolomoisky say their relationship is strictly professional and centred on the comedian's TV work. Both say no undue influence is being exerted by the oligarch, whose businesses range from banking and energy to aviation. 

"I'm more his puppet than he is mine," Kolomoisky said last year.

However, President Poroshenko has sought to make political capital out of the connection between the two men as he fights to make up ground to the comedian before the run-off vote on April 21.

Kolomoisky has lived abroad since clashing with Poroshenko over Ukraine's largest bank, which he used to own but confiscated by the state under a clean-up banking system move suggested by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

In a November interview to Ukrainian news site lb.ua, he worried Ukraine's judicial system would stop him from leaving the country if he came back.

Can Zelensky make a difference?

Public opinion has turned firmly against the political establishment. Voters say politicians failed to deliver on expectations of honest government, despite the sacrifices made during the revolt that overthrew pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovich and the years of hardship and war that followed.

Just nine percent of Ukrainians have confidence in their national government, the lowest of any electorate in the world, a Gallup poll published in March showed.

Zelensky tapped into this anti-establishment mood with a campaign packed with jokes, sketches and song-and-dance routines that poked fun at his political rivals.

One supporter in Kiev said corruption was the main issue for him, and he trusted in Zelinsky's abilities as a manager and that he would put together a good leadership team.

“I work for a government agency and I know first-hand how easy it is to steal a few million,” said the 27-year-old who declined to give his name. “You can steal freely until someone notices.”

Is he pro-Russian?

In an interview in December, Zelensky said he would let voters decide his country's relations with Russia and whether to compromise with Russian President Vladimir Putin on his annexation of Crimea.

Nationalists in Ukraine aren't happy with Zelensky's history as he is a native Russian speaker despite speaking fluent Ukrainian.

However, Zelensky has so far shown no signs of intention to find common ground with Russia over the situation in Crimea as he harshly condemned Moscow for annexing the Ukrainian land in 2014. 

He immediately closed his subsidiary in Moscow and refused to tour in Russia.

But it's still hard to describe him as pro-Russian or the other way around as he isn't a professional politician.

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