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Comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy leads presidential campaign polls in Ukraine

Well-known Ukrainian showman and recently-confirmed presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy unexpectedly leads in the public support polls. His alternative candidacy is revealing of several challenges facing Ukraine today.

February 12, 2019 - Ruslan Kermach - Articles and CommentaryUkraine elections 2019

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, December 23 2018 Photo: Maxim Stoyalov (cc) wikimedia.org

In the presidential election campaign in Ukraine launched on December 31st 2018 a new intrigue might be observed. Well-known Ukrainian showman and recently-confirmed presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy unexpectedly leads in public support polls which, until now, had been headed by the long-assumed favourite Yulia Tymoshenko.

Among those voters who are already decided and intend to vote in the upcoming presidential elections of 2019 in Ukraine, Zelenskiy enjoys almost 22 per cent of support according to the recent nationwide public opinion poll held jointly by several Ukrainian pollsters (Center for Social Monitoring; Ukrainian Institute for Social Research; ‘Info Sapiens’ company and sociological research group ‘Rating’) and released by Rating Group Ukraine. Zelenskiy slightly outperforms Yulia Tymoshenko, who accounts for 19.2 per cent of this group, as well as the acting president of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko, who accounts for 14.8 per cent respectively.

Since the last monitoring of the electoral sentiments of Ukrainians by the Rating Group Ukraine in December 2018, Zelenskiy increased his rating by five per cent (among those who intend to vote and decided on the choice), while Tymoshenko’s support appeared to dwindle from the peak 20-21 per cent she received earlier (in the end of 2018) to about 18 per cent.

The factors of the dynamic electoral rise

The rapid growth of support for the candidate-showman Zelenskiy over such a short time period deserves special attention and explanation. First, it is worth noting the very bright entry of Volodymyr Zelenskiy into the presidential race on the very day of the official start of the national election campaign in Ukraine. Ukrainians learned about his intention to run for the presidency on New Year’s Eve via one of the most popular Ukrainians TV channels, “1+1”, which is owned by Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoisky.

Zelenskiy’s address to the Ukrainian people was televised on “1+1” just as current President Poroshenko delivered his traditional end-of-the-year address on other TV channels. This piquant situation provoked a rather ambiguous reaction in Ukraine. The famous comedian’s New Year’s Eve announcement collected about three million views on YouTube alone and made news headlines, provoking heated discussions on various social networks for the next several days.

Prior to the public statement of his presidential ambitions, Volodymyr Zelenskiy gave a three-hour detailed interview to the famous Ukrainian journalist Dmytro Gordon. Among other things in this interview, for the first time Zelenskiy announced his views on the key political issues facing Ukraine, particularly those regarding the country’s foreign, domestic policy and the Donbas military conflict settlement. While his answers were rather superficial and narrow-minded, the interview itself was in fact the first serious attempt by Zelenskiy to appear before the Ukrainians as a potential political figure. It had a large outreach and attracted additional attention to the figure of Zelenskiy as a potential candidate for the presidency.

Over the past month Zelenskiy’s campaign has shown signs of its originality and creativity, markedly contrasting the rather traditional formats of nomination within the party conventions or forums used by the political heavyweights, such as Tymoshenko, Poroshenko or Boyko.

Shortly after announcing his plan to run for presidency, Zelenskiy released a video message urging Ukrainians, particularly those who had never been in politics before, to join his team. For this purpose, a special website was launched to recruit all those interested in becoming a part of his active support base, known as the “Ze! Team”.  Zelenskiy is clearly trying to compensate for his lack of political experience with his demonstrative openness and non-standard communicative approach with regard to potential voters. A vivid testimony for this was his appeal to Ukrainian citizens to jointly create an election program for him.

Such an original maneuver was meant to encourage a positive response among Ukrainians; however, it provoked a rather ambiguous reaction from the expert circles of Ukraine and gave some reasonable grounds to claim that the newfound favourite of the presidential runoff still does not have a political platform by which he intends to ask the Ukrainian citizens for a presidential mandate.

Somewhat later, Zelenskiy also held a meeting with prominent representatives of the anti-corruption movement in order to gather their opinions on how to fight corruption in Ukraine. Following the meeting, the team of the candidate-showman joined the anti-corruption agenda proposed by the public. This apparently was intended to neutralize, or at least reduce the scale of, possible criticism of the candidate on the part of civil society and experts. In addition, hyping the anti-corruption theme at that particular moment was meant to distract from the negative blowback associated with the recent exposure of Zelenskiy’s hidden film business in Russia, a find made public by the investigative journalists from the “Schemes” TV programme. Later Zelenskiy eventually had to admit having a film business in Russia together with other business partners.

During his election campaign, the comedian-candidate seeks to correspond in every way to the “servant of the people” image which he himself played in the popular TV series of the same name. However, more sophisticated observers note clear discrepancies between the constructed film image of an average history teacher and the real status of Zelenskiy as a quite wealthy and influential businessperson – facts further evidenced by the data revealed in the candidate’s declaration submitted to the Central election commission of Ukraine.

Support of the comedian as an expression of public discontent

The wide national recognition of Zelenskiy as a well-known showman and comedian in Ukraine, and the likely identification of him with the image of a non-systemic “people’s president”, generally fell on the fertile ground of total mistrust felt by many Ukrainians towards the current political class, as demonstrated by many sociological polls. For instance, there are no well-known politicians in Ukraine who maintain a positive balance of trust among the population. A similar public attitude is overall observed with respect to key state institutions in the country.

In the backdrop of such public opinion tendencies, it is seems that a significant part of the Ukrainian voters in support of Zelenskiy’s candidacy rather express a vote of no confidence to all those who, until now, have personified power in Ukraine. Being a novice in Ukrainian politics, Zelenskiy satisfies the public request for “new faces” and new political leaders who have not previously held high government posts in the country. For instance, two-thirds of respondents in Ukraine expressed the need for new political leaders, according to a survey conducted in the summer of 2018 by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation.

The recent decision made by another “non-system” candidate, well-known musician and public figure Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, not to run for presidency in 2019 could be a potential factor that further strengthens Zelenskiy’s electoral position. Vakarchuk, much like Zelenskiy, appears as one of the few new politicians who have not yet lost public trust in Ukraine. This suggests that at least some of Vakarchuk’s former supporters may also choose to support Zelenskiy as their alternative “non-political” candidate for presidency.

These new electoral tendencies of the presidential campaign in Ukraine, as well as the rapidly growing support for a candidate like Zelenskiy whom many have not taken seriously until now, should make yesterday’s runoff favourites seriously wary. They will have to noticeably intensify their efforts in order to counter the showman-candidate.

Ruslan Kermach is an associate expert at the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation (DIF) in Kyiv, Ukraine.

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