Ukraine’s Presidential Gamble
Ukrainians are a revolutionary, not evolutionary people. That was confirmed in the first round of the presidential election on March 31, when out of a record number of 39 candidates, a political neophyte and comedy actor received twice as many votes as the incumbent president.
The result of the second round on April 21 is hard to predict. Most probably, the 70 percent of the vote that did not go to first-round winner Volodymyr Zelensky cannot be brought together as Ukraine’s political elites are too quarrelsome. During the campaign, they spent more on black PR against each other than on promoting their programs. The country is also polarized as to the idea of a complete political novice being in charge in a time of hybrid war with Russia.
Each electoral campaign in Ukraine has been unpredictable in its own way. And Zelensky is also unique. He is 41 and has done nothing else to date but comedy and political satire. Since he announced his candidacy a couple of months ago, he has not given an interview. His campaign pushed positives messages of drastic change, unity, modernity, and liberal values, but his actual program is vague, and who he might nominate to important positions such head of the army, minister of defense, or minister foreign affairs is a mystery.
Zelensky is a logical product of a country where politics is personalized, there are 500 parties that are registered and can be sold, and politicians switch political sides as they please.
At the same time, Zelensky is a logical product of a country where politics is personalized, there are 500 parties that are registered and can be sold, and politicians switch political sides as they please. There is space for a lot of opinions in the media, but that is because the oligarchs that control 80 percent of outlets use them to exert influence and fight each other.
Zelensky is not even a member of the party for which he is the presidential candidate, but it is named after the successful The Servant of the People series on TV channel 1+1, in which he plays a teacher who becomes president with the help of an oligarch but fights corruption. In real life, he is believed to be supported by the oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi who owns 1+1 is of Jewish descent as Zelensky, and comes from the same region. Zelensky’s announcement that he was running was aired on the channel instead of the presidential New Year’s address—supposedly due to a technical mistake.
In 2014, Petro Poroshenko was the first Ukrainian president to be elected in the first round, winning in a landslide. Hopes were high that he would eradicate corruption and poverty, end the recession, and stop the war in the east of the country. He has led successful reforms of the army and for decentralizing government, signed an Association Agreement with the EU, and secured the Ukrainian Orthodox Church becoming independent. But too many reforms stalled and too many scandals in his team marred his term. His presidential campaign was nationalistic in tone; as an uncompromising antagonist of Kremlin, he is believed to be Russia’s least-preferred winner.
A Dangerous Choice by Frustrated Voters?
However, the frustration and urge for change in society is very high and many voters look ready to gamble on Zelensky. After all, Ukrainians say, politicians are clowns anyhow and this one is at least a professional one. Another vivid political figure, controversial former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko also campaigned on a change platform, but a lot of her potential voters chose Zelensky as he is the one who embodies change most. However, those who did vote for her are not likely to switch to him in the second round.
This was the first time in a presidential election that there was no candidate with a pro-Russian agenda because the elites see no demand for this from the public.
Zelensky is certainly a bold choice and even a dangerous one, given that he will have to face up to President Vladimir Putin without any experience. But, while he is a black box, those who are behind him are not. Ukraine swings from one political elite to the other as they struggle for power, but follow the general trend in the society, and this year is no exception. This was the first time in a presidential election that there was no candidate with a pro-Russian agenda because the elites see no demand for this from the public.
While the Russian media is commenting on the chaos and “defeat of democracy” as the incumbent president in Kyiv loses the vote, it is Moscow that has already lost. Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations are enshrined in the constitution and a new head of state—or the oligarchs behind him—will not be able to diverge from this path.
The changes that have taken place in Ukraine’s society and its pro-European mindset are obvious. But Ukrainians are worried about the scope and speed of change—they are impatient, have high expectations, and want fast results. At the same time, they also want democracy and it is important that yet another election has been recognized as free and fair by international and domestic observers, who agree that irregularities in the first round were minor. Also, unlike other post-Soviet countries, Ukraine is about to elect its sixth president since independence.
After the presidential election has produced a winner, a lot remains to be done in terms of economic and social reforms; strengthening political checks and balances; easing the grip of oligarchs on the mass media, parliament and party systems; introducing more transparency and control of law-enforcement agencies; consolidating of the nation and raising its welfare. Electing a total beginner in this context would be a clear anti-establishment vote. Ukrainians will have to choose between the familiar “lesser evil” in Poroshenko and a very vague chance to reboot the system with Zelensky.
But, compared to citizens of other countries in the region who tend to think that change will bring something worse, they are optimists, ready to try an alternative and to discard anyone who has been in charge but was not quick and successful enough. It looks as though for them Poroshenko is already not good enough—and now also too negative as everyone is tired of the war and warlike propaganda. That is why Ukrainians are ready to opt for the unknown.
And if this voters’ revolution does not prove to be successful, one can be sure there will be another one in the next presidential contest.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.