You could be forgiven for mistaking the first round in Ukraine’s presidential elections as an episode from a TV series — replete with established politicians being vanquished by a refreshing young upstart promising root-and-branch change.
On Sunday, one of Ukraine’s most popular actors — best known for his role in a TV series about a schoolteacher who vaults to his country’s presidency on the wave of anti-corruption disgust —appeared on course to win the first round of a presidential race that’s proving anything but ordinary.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s comfortable win — the count so far has him securing more than 30 percent of the vote — has thrown into the air Ukraine’s political cards, with few daring to predict in what shape they’ll land.
For the voters who backed the 41-year-old, art and life are in harmony.
“If we didn’t have Zelenskiy, we’d have to invent him. We need a new person, a champion of direct democracy. He’s genuine, he’s different and he’s exciting civil society. His network of advisers and volunteers aren’t connected by money or by the possibility of future benefits, but by the idea of real democratic reform,” Irina Venediktova, a law professor and Zelenskiy adviser, told VOA in a pre-election interview.
For his critics, including Petro Poroshenko, the incumbent president who’s on course to win 16 to 19 percent of the vote and to secure the slot to run off against Zelenskiy in the second round on April 21, the TV comic is blurring make-believe and reality dangerously.
As far as he’s concerned the time for jokes are over — Poroshenko says the maverick actor-turned-candidate would make a weak president, one who could easily be tricked and exploited by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Russian leader, Poroshenko said, “dreams of a soft, submissive, gentle, giggling, inexperienced, weak, ideologically amorphous and politically uncertain president.” “Will we gift him this?” added Poroshenko after half the votes had been counted.
Speaking to supporters as the votes came in, Zelenskiy — he named his party after his popular show’s title, Servant of the People — said “thank you” to “all the Ukrainians who did not vote just for fun.” Zelenskiy added to cheering supporters, “It is only the beginning, we will not relax This is just a first step towards a great victory.”
A wide-ranging support
But a victory for what? Analysts say his support, which unusually for a Ukrainian presidential candidate is spread evenly across most of the country, although it falls off in western regions bordering Poland, is a protest vote against a corruption-heavy, oligarch-dominated political order. To forecast how he would govern is impossible as Zelenskiy has offered little in the way of a program, they say.
His campaign has been based on policy-light, gag-filled videos posted on social media sites that mock established politicians, mainly Poroshenko.
The 53-year-old billionaire and media mogul, dubbed “the chocolate king” because of his confectionary business, came to power during the chaos and turmoil of 2014, when the Kremlin annexed Crimea and backed a separatist war in eastern Ukraine that has killed so far more than 10,000.
Aside from taking aim at Poroshenko for his wealth, Zelenskiy has held no official rallies and offered no political speeches. And even in the few press interviews he’s done, he has shied away from going into policy details. In place of the the usual manifesto, he asked Ukrainians to volunteer campaign ideas for him.
He is broadly pro-European Union and wants to solve the conflict with Russia raging in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, but doesn’t say how. His mantra has been,“No promises, no disappointment.” His opponents say he has turned ignorance into a virtue.
Sticking to generalities
On Sunday night Zelenskiy kept to his script of offering just generalities. “Fascinating. Zelensky makes an appearance at his campaign center. He mainly plays table tennis and MAKES NO STATEMENTS NOR ANSWERS ANY QUESTIONS From REPORTERS, apart from a couple sentences,” tweeted Adrian Karatnycky, an analyst at the Atlantic Council, a U.S.-based think tank, and a critic of Zelenskiy.
Zelinskiy’s upstart candidacy has left many blinking also in the Western diplomatic community. While voicing frustration with Poroshenko, and criticism of his efforts to curtail large-scale corruption, they say at least he’s a known quantity. Zelinskiy’s lack of government experience worries them.
But Venediktova says his outside status is one of his strengths. “It will help him find practical and innovative solutions,” she says. She rejects the claim that Zelenskiy can be compared to Italian comic Beppo Grillo, who founded the quirky, anti-establishment Five Star Movement, that’s now a partner in Italy’s populist coalition government. “He is not like Grillo,” she says. “I would compare him to the French leader Emmanuel Macron, a centrist figure who represents broad opinion,” she says.
A 'harsh lesson' for Poroshenko
As the results came in Sunday, Poroshenko, who has pushed during his presidency to integrate Ukraine with the European Union and NATO, strengthened the military and aided the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to become independent of Russian control, said the first round had taught him a “harsh lesson.” He said he understood voters want change “to be quicker, deeper and of higher quality. I have understood the motives behind your protest.”
How he rejigs his campaign to cope with Zelinskiy’s unconventional challenge remains unclear. Both the second-round finalists and their aides have started to reach out to seek the backing of the 37 candidates they beat and they are competing especially for the support of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who, when all the votes are finally counted, is likely to end up with about 13 percent of the overall vote.
Poroshenko is likely also to focus more in the run-up to the second round on Zelenskiy’s ties to oligarch, Ihor Kolomoisky, the owner of Ukraine’s TV channel 1+1, which broadcasts The Servant of the People.
Four days before the vote, the latest series of "Servant of the People" premiered, and on the eve of Sunday’s voting the channel dedicated much of its evening’s fare to repeats of old episodes. Zelenskiy insists he’s not a puppet of one of Ukraine’s most controversial oligarchs, but Poroshenko’s camp is likely to boost claims that Kolomoisky’s is engineering a PR coup.