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Who is Mr Ze?

Comedian-candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy emerged as the clear victor in the first round of Ukraine’s presidential elections. His quick and bright rise to popularity might not be so shocking, however, if one considers the voting groups he captured and the methods his campaign employed in the process.

April 10, 2019 - Valerii Pekar - Blogs and podcastsUkraine elections 2019

Servant of the People, a Ukrainian television program starring Volodymyr Zelenskiy acting as the President of Ukraine Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko Photo: Yaroslav Burdovitsin (cc) wikimedia.org

Ukraine: The European frontier – a blog curated by Valerii Pekar.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a comedian actor, rushed into Ukrainian politics and now the winner of the first round of the presidential elections (which observers confirmed to have been honest and transparent). With 30.24 per cent of the total vote, Zelenskiy overcome experienced political leaders and challenged the current president Petro Poroshenko, who received 15.95 per cent. Who is Mr Ze (as his own campaign refers to him), and how did he manage to break through? This article does not contain any assessments of the personality or program of the candidate, nor does it campaign for or against any candidate. This is an attempt to objectively analyse Zelenskiy’s campaign as an interesting and important political science phenomenon, which definitely deserves to be studied.

Who voted for Zelenskiy?

The most important factor in the high ranking of Zelenskiy is that he has aggregated three electoral groups. The first group, voters “against all”, became the nucleus of Zelenskiy’s electorate. From the very beginning, they were ready to vote for any anti-system candidate, expressing their protest against the traditional elites. Such a protest and a request for anti-system faces can be observed in many countries around the world. Many voters in this group are young people which hate traditional political rhetoric and practices, while many others are convinced pro-European liberals who could not find their consistent candidate among old politicians.

Political analysts (and may be Zelenskiy himself) thought that this would be the limit of his achievements. But in January, he began to recruit a second group: the pro-Russian electorate. Estimated at approximately 25 per cent of the Ukrainian voting population, this group lost its single candidate after splitting the pro-Russian bloc into two parts. Many pro-Russian voters become disappointed in candidates Yuriy Boyko and Oleksandr Vilkul and instead saw their option in Zelenskiy: he is Russian-speaking, does not focus on the topics of patriotism and war and repeatedly says that it is necessary to stop the war. (This wording is used by pro-Russian candidates, while others use it to articulate the idea that Ukraine must not “stop the war” but instead oppose aggression and free the occupied and annexed territories and people). Thus Zelenskiy captured the second group of voters and significantly increased his rating, becoming the leader of the national presidential race.

But afterwards he managed to attract a third group, which can be conventionally identified as those looking for “anyone-not-Poroshenko”. These are the voters for whom the main objective of the current election is considered to be the elimination of Poroshenko (a goal whose causes vary from frustration to slow reform and persistent corruption to the influence of Russian propaganda). These voters primarily were either not determined or ready to vote for the former prime minister and very experienced political leader Yulia Tymoshenko as a candidate who could challenge Poroshenko. When Zelenskiy quickly rushed upwards, they saw the future winner in him. Voters began to flow from Tymoshenko to Zelenskiy, and this process has been dynamically continuing since the beginning of the year: she fell, while he grew. Since Tymoshenko is a leftist unlike Zelenskiy, these voters are not leftists but haters of Poroshenko, who has the highest “anti-rating”.

Some analysts used to say that supporters of Zelenskiy vote as a joke. This is not true. The problem is that they vote for him for different reasons, and each of them is sure that Zelenskiy shares and supports their values and positions (see below about mirror technology). Such ambivalence among Zelenskiy’s voters is confirmed by sociological research.

How did Zelenskiy win their votes?

Zelenskiy and his campaign employed many tools and approaches in order to garner so many votes, five of which particularly deserve attention. The first and most interesting political tool is the TV series Servant of the People in which Zelenskiy played the role of a modest school teacher-turned-president. An ordinary and honest man, the character is meant to be similar to “many of us” and dedicates himself to fighting corruption and old clans. Such a TV hero is an unprecedented solution in the world of political advertisements. It is important to note that people with pre-critical thinking identify the actor with his character (as a child believes in Santa Claus, even if she saw her father wearing a white beard). The primetime programming slot at the most popular TV channel in Ukraine (owned by oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi) was given to Zelenskiy, not only for the series but also for another of his shows (which mocks all political leaders). Furthermore the channel chose to air Zelenskiy’s New Year’s speech, rather than that of the current president, as is customary. All of these media appearances, particularly Servant of the People, moulded Zelenskiy’s image as an anti-system political figure.

A second crucial feature is the fact that Zelenskiy’s campaign embraces a digital approach. Other candidates’ teams did not even try to use modern channels and tools. They were all stuck in the 20th century with its billboards and television. The Zelenskiy campaign pleasantly impressed voters who are active on social media, encouraging them to grow attached to this candidate. Indeed, social networks do not accept the traditional lush rhetoric and conservative slogans of Ukrainian politics.

A third important factor is “mirror technology”. Zelenskiy and his team avoid making any clear statements on key issues regarding policies and key appointments after his potential victory. They avoid journalists, meetings, interviews, and debates where these questions could be asked. Since Zelenskiy united three different and incompatible electoral groups, any explicit statements on policies or policymakers would easily divert some of them. This avoidance allows each supporter of Zelenskiy to assume that the candidate shares their own exact values ​​and positions. Many voters believe that Zelenskiy is in favour of European integration, while many others are certain of his pro-Russian position. Everyone sees themselves in the candidate as if they were looking into the mirror.

Fourth is his usage of a “Child to Child” communication style. Famous psychiatrist Eric Berne in his book Games People Play defines the three ego states of a person: the Parent, the Adult, and the Child. Almost all candidates form the political image of a Father or a Mother and, from the height of this position, speak to a voter as a Child with promises to protect, to care and to supply. Zelenskiy was the first candidate to turn to the “Child to Child” prankish communication mode. This is an entirely new approach, favourably distinguishing his from traditional paternalistic rhetoric.

The fifth factor in Zelenskiy’s success was the fact that he conducted a short campaign. Yulia Tymoshenko’s early start led to the exhaustion of her messages and the lack of new voting groups that could be attracted; meanwhile Zelenskiy’s team brilliantly calculated the start time of the campaign (December 31st 2018), so that at the time of the election his presence was at its peak. It does not matter what happens next, in so far as that an athlete must be in the best shape at the time of the competition.

Epitomising the postmodernist campaign

All of the above can be summarized as the postmodernist approach: people vote not for a real man, but for the virtual character created by a high-quality TV series and campaign with elaborated channels and messages. Nobody knows what kind of policies the potential winner will implement or whom he will assign to top positions across the country. (The presidential prerogative includes minister of foreign affairs, minister of defence and all top positions in the security sector, procurator general and some important positions in judiciary and, last but not least, heads of regional administrations).

The master of jokes turned into a joker of politics. Some people believe that Mr Ze is Mr Zorro – the popular fictional character portrayed as a brave fighter against corruption – while others think he is Mr Zero, a poorly educated actor manipulated by oligarchs. Anyway, political competition in Ukraine will never be the same.

Valerii Pekar is a co-founder of the Nova Kraina Civic Platform, a lecturer at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School and a former member of the National Reform Council. He curates a blog on New Eastern Europe titled Ukraine: The European frontier.

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