Renowned TV comic Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s very likely victory may transcend the country's deepest political schism which has long played into the Russian hands.
KYIV, Ukraine –– The king is losing to a jester. Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s billionaire ‘chocolate king’ and incumbent president who cultivates the image of an unrelenting, menacing commander-in-chief who stood up to Russian aggression, was soundly defeated in the first round of this year’s presidential vote.
Defeated by a small-framed political freshman Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a 41-year-old comedian, producer and head of a successful production company who hails from a Russian-speaking family in Ukraine’s Russia-leaning east.
His stance of an outsider free from affiliations with the widely distrusted and graft-addled political establishment was crucial, supporters say.
“Ukrainians want changes, they don’t want to associate their future with corrupt politicians, and they want to see new politics modelled on honesty and a fight with corruption,” Serhiy Leshchenko, a lawmaker and anti-corruption activist who left Poroshenko’s party to join Zelenskiy’s team, told TRT World.
Zelenskiy proved that life imitates art in the ex-Soviet nation devastated by Europe’s hottest armed conflict, Crimea’s annexation, a full-blown economic crisis and massive brain drain. In a popular TV series whose first season aired in 2015, he played a school teacher who is elected president against all political odds after his anti-establishment diatribe made him a YouTube star.
In real life, Zelenskiy ran a taped-together campaign without a coherent programme or running mates. He gave only a handful of interviews, campaigned via online videos and satirical shows in jam-packed concert halls – and won the hearts and minds of millions throughout Ukraine.
“He can change things at least a little bit, because politicians have only been thinking about themselves all these years,” Darya Mozgovaya, a 29-year-old bank teller in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, told TRT World.
Poroshenkos’ supporters denounced Zelenskiy’s vague, populist message as stupefying bait designed to dupe the voters.
“Poroshenko is a titan who will keep fighting to the end, but even he is not omnipotent in the fight with human stupidity,” political analyst Oleh Sharp wrote in his blog.
Zelenskiy managed to get more than 30 percent of the March 31 vote, slightly more than his main rivals combined. Poroshenko was a distant second with 16 percent, and former premiere Yulia Tymoshenko was farther behind with 13 percent.
Three dozen other hopefuls got the rest of the vote ending their parts in the most crowded election in Ukraine’s history.
Poroshenko and Zelenskiy will compete in the April 21 runoff, and it won’t just be a confrontation of a clownish David and a gloomy Goliath. Zelenskiy’s very likely victory may transcend Ukraine’s deepest political schism that has long played into the Kremlin’s hands.
Most of his supporters initially were younger Ukrainians from eastern and southern provinces, which historically gravitate towards Russia, and analysts doubted whether they would actually show up at polling stations. They did, but the most surprising result of the vote was that Zelenskiy was widely backed by voters from western and central provinces, Poroshenko’s support base.
Zelenskiy’s lead in 19 out of 24 regions (Crimea and separatist-controlled parts of Donetsk and Luhansk did not take part in the vote) helped overcome Ukraine’s eternal political antagonism between Russian-speaking south and east and pro-Western, nationalist west and centre.
Some observers say that the all-national victory stems from Zelenskiy’s lack of concise, coherent promises and a vague reformist agenda open to interpretation by opposing political camps.
“He overcame [the divide] with his vagueness, we’re buying him now like a pig in a poke, we don’t understand his real views,” Kiev-based analyst Serhiy Pogrebinsky told TRT World.
The antagonism is not set in stone or clearly defined borders, since millions of marriages in Ukraine are mixed, most of the population is bilingual, and ties with Russia are centuries old. The soft power of Russian culture and language is still strong – and doesn’t automatically translate into political allegiance to the Kremlin.
“We hate Putin just as hard as any [ethnic] Ukrainian, and the fact that Russian is our mother tongue does not make us Moscow spies,” Valentina Karamysheva, a 41-year-old cook, told TRT World.
Despite weeks of touring and an aggressive campaign that relied on patriotism, conservative nationalism and belligerent anti-Kremlin rhetoric, Poroshenko beat Zelenskiy only in three western regions, which only became part of Soviet Ukraine during World War II.
The president lambasted Zelenskiy as a figurehead fielded by oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, whose 1+1 television network airs Zelenskiy’s satirical shows that have for years satirised and ridiculed Ukraine’s political establishment.
“Fate put me against a Kolomoisky’s puppet,” Poroshenko said on Sunday night after exit polls trumpeted his defeat. “We won't give Kolomoisky a chance.”
However, he admitted that Zelenskiy’s success is to blame on his own mistakes.
“This is a harsh lesson for me and our entire team,” Poroshenko said. “This is a serious reason to thoroughly correct the mistakes made in recent years.”
His supporters credit him with restoring war-ravaged cities, rebuilding aged, Soviet-era infrastructure and strengthening Ukraine’s military. His miniscule approval ratings skyrocketed last year after he convinced Bartholomew, the Patriarch of Constantinople and the world’s most revered Orthodox Christian leader, to recognise a new Ukrainian church free from religious submission to Moscow.
One of Ukraine’s wealthiest oligarchs, Poroshenko proclaimed an anti-corruption crusade during his election campaign in 2014. But while many bureaucratic hurdles have been simplified, top-level corruption has hardly been addressed.
In recent weeks, he was dogged by scandals that involved his team’s alleged attempt to buy millions of votes and his close friend’s affiliation with companies that reportedly supplied overpriced spare parts to Ukraine’s military that were smuggled from Russia.
Far-right groups staged massive protests and tried to disrupt his campaign rallies and boo the president off the stage.
But Poroshenko is not giving up – because even after losing the presidential vote his party may try to win in the October parliamentary election.
Poroshenko’s team "will try to radicalise the campaign," political analyst Andriy Zolotaryov wrote. "They will repeat the mistakes they did in January and February when they started a campaign to defame Zelenskiy."