The Ukrainian Election: TV Star Turned Presidential Frontrunner

Written by: Daniel Zaydman

On March 31, over eighteen million Ukrainians went to the polls for the first time since the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution. Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian who plays the Ukrainian President on the wildly-popular satirical television series Servant of the People, came out in first place with over 30 percent of the popular vote in the first of two rounds of the presidential election. This came as a huge blow to current President Petro Poroshenko who, while winning in a landslide victory just five years ago, has been mired by corruption scandals and low approval ratings. Zelensky won without staging a single rally and without having any experience in the political field. His success shows Ukrainian’s desire for a drastic change in its leadership. 

Since gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine has struggled to transform itself both politically and economically like some of its other former-Soviet Eastern European neighbors. Frustration within the population culminated in 2004 when Ukraine underwent its first revolution in the immediate aftermath of the country’s fourth presidential election. Many Ukrainians had hope after Viktor Yushchenko won in a second runoff, as the results of the first were ruled null due to election rigging. Many believed the time had finally come for Ukraine to rid itself of corrupt officials and begin its economic transformation by joining the European Union. 

Hope vanished by the subsequent election when Viktor Yanukovych, the loser of the previous election, won and began implementing his pro-Russia agenda. There was significant doubt amongst pro-EU Ukrainians that once Yanukovych assumed office, progress would not be made in the country’s push to join the EU. In 2013, that doubt came to fruition when Yanukovych suspended the signing of an EU association agreement. Protestors descended onto Kiev’s Independence Square, where they voiced their dismay to Yanukovych. It was during these protests that Yanukovych would accept a multi-billion loan from Russian in exchange for submission to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sphere of influence. Demonstrations violently escalated, leaving 113 dead and Ukraine on the brink of civil war. Yanukovych was forced to flee the country to Russia and was voted out of office by parliament by a historic 380-0 vote. Billionaire Petro Poroshenko was subsequently elected, promising the electorate to divest himself of his candy company, Roshen, and rid Ukraine of corruption. 

Five years later, with Poroshenko still profiting heavily off his candy company and new allegations of corruption coming out against the government in its war against pro-Russian separatists in the east, Ukrainians have voiced their displeasure at the polls. Though Zelensky’s views remain largely unknown to the public, and despite having ties to oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky and being a part owner of three Russian film companies, he remains a symbol of anti-establishment sentiment that has been growing stronger and stronger over the past three decades. 

Zelensky’s appeal to voters is understandable, as he embodies a bold new alternative for Ukraine. His lack of any experience in politics and questionable ties to Ihor Kolomoisky and Russian companies, however, make it difficult to believe that Ukraine’s future lays any better in his hands. What Ukraine needs is a leader who understands the machinations of the EU, and can guide the country through the integration process. Events like Brexit and the Greek Financial Crisis have created an unprecedented amount of turmoil within the union; a strong and knowledgeable leader is necessary for Ukraine to pave its way in. 

Despite his shortcomings, Zelensky will ultimately win the presidency as his anti-establishment persona is exactly what Ukrainians long for. This is the first time in Ukraine’s history that a non-politician has a chance at winning the presidency, and Ukrainians are sure to seize this rare opportunity. Voters will ultimately make their final decision about the presidency on April 21st, though it seems like Ukraine has already made up its mind.