Ukraine has astonished the world, as did Russian expansionism five years ago. While Crimea was annexed, Ukraine remained a former Soviet satellite… and on Vladimir Putin’s terms. It is open to question whether the equation between the Kremlin and Kiev is now set to change. The comedian with little or no political experience has won the presidential election, and his landslide victory is for real. Volodymyr Zelenskiy, an actor and comedian who had played the role of President in a television series, is now poised to step into the presidential palace in Kiev with a convincing mandate, having won 70 per cent of the votes.
The equally convincing defeat of the Kremlin’s nominated President, Petro Poroshenko, arguably explains why the response of Russia, pre-eminently President Putin, has been generally muted. It is pretty obvious that Poroshenko was fighting a losing battle, having conceded defeat as early as Sunday evening and even before the results had started trickling in. Remarkable, almost incredible, has been the psephological swing; Zelenskiy has won 73.4 per cent of the votes, compared to Poroshenko’s 24.4 per cent after five years in the saddle.
Zelenskiy’s immediate assurance to voters was as succinct as it could be ~ “I won’t mess up.” Which indeed was an oblique reference to his predecessor’s tenure. Extraordinary as the comedian’s victory has been, he now faces a real test. The humiliating scale of Poroshenko’s defeat was concordant with a series of polls in recent weeks.
These had suggested that Zelenskiy would win the runoff with ease. His triumph has swiftly been greeted with congratulatory messages from Donald Trump and the French President, Emmanuel Macron. Zelenskiy will helm the government in Kiev at a critical juncture. The inheritance is depleted not the least owing to the grave economic crisis. No less awesome is the ongoing war against Russia-backed separatist forces in the east, a conflict that has claimed more than 13,000 lives.
He is best known for his role in the long-running Ukrainian television series, Servant of the People, in which he acted as a teacher unexpectedly elected to the presidency after a spirited campaign against corruption is posted online by his students. A striking feature of his campaign was that he offered little information about his policies or plans for the presidency. He has relied instead on viral videos, comedy gigs and jokes in place of traditional campaigning.
Like the fictional President of his television series, Zelenskiy has promised to clean up politics and end the stranglehold of the oligarchy over Ukraine, but he has offered little by way of specifics. Humour and tongue-in-cheek innuendo will lie rather thin on the ground once he sets about governing the country. The challenge ahead is formidable, in terms of matters domestic, relations with the Kremlin, and geopolitical compulsions in ties with the other former Soviet satellites. Suffice it to register that Volodymyr Zelenskiy is not a fictional President. Not any more.