Ukraine Elections Special: Comedian Zelensky, the Underdog of Ukrainian Presidential Elections

In Ukraine, 2019 is an important election year. The first round of presidential elections will take place on March 31 and a parliamentary election will follow suit in autumn. Ukraine elections special by the European Security Journal will introduce the three most popular presidential candidates: the current president Petro Poroshenko, the former PM Yulia Tymoshenko and a comedian Volodymyr Zelensky.

Zelensky is the biggest surprise of the elections. This successful TV producer and a popular actor is consistently polling at a second place behind the former PM Timoshenko with about 17 % of the vote. Given the tiresome military conflict, the introduction of painful reforms and the continuous influence of powerful oligarchs and corruption, the Ukrainian society is hungry for new and fresh political figures. With his image of a self-made producer who is not a part of the establishment, Zelensky seems to fit that role perfectly.

He is particularly popular among the younger population, which might turn out to be his biggest weakness. Young voters tend to be less reliable and it is not certain that they will show up at the polls. Zelensky will also try to appeal to the Russian speaking population in the southern and eastern part of the country. He himself comes from the southern city of Kryvyi Rih and speaks exclusively in Russian.

 

His lack of experiences and rather ambiguous positions might prove to be a disadvantage when facing the seasoned opponents

 

Contrary to his opponents, Zelensky’s attitude towards the West is rather toned down. However, when it comes to the conflict with Russia, there is no room for doubts since a pro-Russian politician enjoying mass support is simply unimaginable in contemporary Ukrainian society. Yet, Zelensky stated that he is open to negotiations with the Kremlin to end the conflict swiftly.

On the other hand, his lack of experiences and ambiguous positions might prove to be a disadvantage when facing the seasoned opponents. Since Zelensky does not possess any relevant foreign policy experience and seeks to surround himself with mainly apolitical colleagues in his potential presidential office, he would most likely need a transitional period to "learn the craft". Needless to say, Ukraine can hardly afford such doldrums at this time. Additionally, contrary to his opponents, Zelensky did not cultivate warm relations with any of the European leaders and will have a hard time mobilizing voters as he lacks proper political structures in the regions.

 

The impacts of Zelensky’s candidacy can be already observed. His participation shuffled the deck and forced his two politically-established opponents to adapt and embrace new perspectives

 

In contemporary Ukraine, it is customary to accuse politicians of advancing the interests of oligarchs. Zelensky is not an exception. Suspicions surrounding his links to Ihor Kolomojski are voiced most often. Kolomojski is the owner of the TV channel 1+1 where Zelensky hosts his comedy shows and where he announced his candidacy.  He was also previously involved with Privatbank, one of the largest Ukrainian banks that had to be placed under state control for five billion dollars due to financial troubles. This affair left an ugly scar on Kolomojski’s relation with the current Ukrainian president Poroshenko.

There are certainly many weak spots but one shouldn’t underestimate Zelensky’s ambitions. It certainly wouldn’t be the first case of a successful apolitical businessman becoming a favoured politician. The impacts of Zelensky’s candidacy can already be observed since his participation shuffled the deck and forced his two politically-established opponents to adapt and embrace new perspectives.

Even in the case of failure, Zelensky will stand as a candidate in autumn parliamentary elections together with his party Sluha Narodu. If the party succeeds in mustering support of the electorate, it might become a fresh political power disturbing the beaten track of Ukrainian political climate cultivated during the post-Soviet era.

About author: Petr Fena

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