Actor, director, and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy (credit: Hromaske)
► The frontrunner in the Ukrainian presidential campaign is someone who has never held a government position and has no record of political or civic activism. Rather, Volodymyr Zelenskiy has risen to prominence by ridiculing on stage the very politicians he is now running against. Zelenskiy’s popularity ultimately rests on supra-rational faith in him as a new type of post-ideological leader without any specific ideational or programmatic appeal. But he is still not a likely winner: access to the Ukrainian political arena is highly restricted and remains off limits for those without elite connections.
Five years after the Euromaidan revolution, Ukraine remains in the world media spotlight, due primarily to its ongoing conflict with Russia, incessant corruption scandals, and persistent internal instability. In December 2018, President Poroshenko introduced emergency rule in large parts of the country on the pretext of a heightened risk of external aggression. Donbas remains the site of Europe’s most serious armed conflict, with daily ceasefire violations and a growing death toll among Ukrainian soldiers and local civilians. Sluggish economic growth rates, weak investment inflows, and rising utility prices keep the country’s household incomes at the lowest levels in the region. The recent Credit Suisse report ranked Ukraine at the very bottom (123rd out of 140 countries) in terms of its citizens’ median wealth. According to the U.S. State Department, corruption in Ukraine remains “pervasive at all levels in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.” In contrast to its earlier optimistic projections, the IMF now expects that economic growth in Ukraine will not exceed 3 percent of GDP annually as long as the current anemic pace of reforms and investment continues. The country’s persistent challenges raise the stakes of the upcoming elections for Ukrainian society and Ukraine’s neighbors.
Ukraine’s Electoral Menu
Yet despite perennial security and economic crises, Ukrainians are not rushing to the polls this month to elect someone with strong military or governance credentials. Former defense minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko and two former Security Service (SBU) chiefs, Valentyn Nalyvaichenko and Ihor Smeshko, registered as presidential candidates, but their popularity remains in the single digits. A long-time mayor of Lviv, Andriy Sadovyi, dropped out of the race, unable to improve his initial low standing. The nationalist forces have likewise fared badly, with a unified candidate of the far-right parties, Ruslan Koshulyns’kyi, polling at barely above one percent. The two candidates with the most governing experience, current president Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, have struggled to exceed the 15 percent threshold.
“It is mainly his TV series, “Servant of the People,” in which Zelenskiy plays a fictional president of Ukraine who rails against oligarchs and corrupt bureaucrats, that has allowed the public to imagine him ascending to the nation’s highest political office.”
Instead, two weeks before the first election round, the frontrunner in the presidential campaign is someone who has never held a government position and has no record of political or civic activism. Rather, Volodymyr Zelenskiy has risen to prominence by ridiculing on stage the very politicians he is now running against. His sharp political satire made him a household name and earned his show millions of views on YouTube. But it is mainly his TV series, “Servant of the People,” in which Zelenskiy plays a fictional president of Ukraine who rails against oligarchs and corrupt bureaucrats, that has allowed the public to imagine him ascending to the nation’s highest political office. The election date will coincide with the release of the third season of the series, while the boundary between reality and fiction has already been blurred by Zelenskiy’s ads, which promise the coming of a “new servant of the people” this spring. Although most Ukrainians still doubt that Zelenskiy could actually win the presidency, the growing gap between him and the other two leading candidates (Poroshenko and Tymoshenko) makes it highly likely that he will face one of them in the election runoff in April (see Figure 1).
There are three prevalent explanations for Zelenskiy’s surprising success in his new political role. One centers on the longing of Ukrainian voters for “new faces” in politics and their fatigue with the “post-Soviet elites” epitomized by Tymoshenko and Poroshenko. According to this argument, Zelenskiy effectively capitalized on the popular demand for generational change and benefitted from the absence of other prominent anti-establishment contenders for the presidency, notably the famous Ukrainian rock singer Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, who decided not to run. The second explanation centers on the role of Ukrainian billionaire Ihor Kolomoiskyi, whose TV channel 1+1 was the main media platform for the promotion of Zelenskiy’s show and, later, for the launch of his campaign in prime time on New Year’s Eve. On this logic, it was Kolomoiskiy’s feud with Poroshenko over nationalization of his key asset, PrivatBank, that made the runaway oligarch keen to prevent the current president from being re-elected and therefore interested in investing his resources in Zelenskiy’s campaign. The third explanation relates to the prevalence of younger voters among Zelenskiy’s supporters. From this standpoint, his rise in the polls is owing to his fan base, which is unable to separate the real Zelenskiy from his character on the show. However, this explanation suggests that he might have trouble expanding his electoral coalition beyond this core of fans.
“Unlike right wing populists, Zelenskiy avoids playing identity politics, whether appealing to ethnic or religious heritage or scape-goating minority groups. He constantly switches between the Russian and Ukrainian languages.”
Each of these explanations has a certain degree of validity, but they also overlook other fundamental factors associated with Zelenskiy’s new populist brand that have helped him gain the lead in the 2019 race.
Zelenskiy’s rise has been often compared to the success of Italy’s Five Star Movement—likewise led by a comedian, Beppe Grillo—and viewed in the context of the populist wave rising across the West. However, his campaign messages lack the signature issues embraced by contemporary populist parties. Unlike right-wing populists, he avoids playing identity politics, whether appealing to ethnic or religious heritage or scapegoating minority groups. He constantly switches between the Russian and Ukrainian languages and refuses to discuss his religious views. Unlike left-wing populists, he does not promise to increase government spending on social benefits, raise taxes on the wealthy, or implement income redistribution schemes. The only two former government officials with whom he has met during the campaign have often been praised in the West as neoliberal reformers who advocate less government intervention, greater fiscal discipline, and quicker privatization.
“Poroshenko has based his campaign on nativist calls to privilege the use of the Ukrainian language and recognize the exclusivity of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine under the Patriarchate of Constantinople.”
His main opponents—Poroshenko and Tymoshenko—display much greater similarities to some of these populist positions. Poroshenko has based his campaign on nativist calls to privilege the use of the Ukrainian language and recognize the exclusivity of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, established under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. The centerpiece of Tymoshenko’s “new course” is the promise to lower energy prices for household consumers and to triple the average wages of Ukrainians to approximately the level of their Polish neighbors’ by the end of her term (currently, monthly wages average 300 Euro in Ukraine, compared to 900 Euro in Poland).
Why “Servant of the People”?
There are three important features of his campaign that make Zelenskiy a quintessential populist candidate. The first is the centrality of anti-establishment sentiment, which he channels through the campaign slogan “Let’s trounce them together!” (Zrobimo їkh razom!) He never attacks individual candidates or challenges their proposals. He refuses to debate any specific rival. Instead, Zelenskiy runs against the entire political class, which is widely discredited in the popular imagination as greedy and corrupt. Over two-thirds of Ukrainians have expressed disapproval of the president, the government, and the parliament (see Figure 2).
By contrast, in December 2018, even before Zelenskiy announced his candidacy, his favorability rating was higher than that of any Ukrainian politician (see Figure 3). This makes him the most credible “popular representative” to challenge established political elites.
The second characteristic is Zelenskiy’s embrace of the instruments of direct rule, which create the illusion of the exercise of popular sovereignty. The first bill that he promises to introduce is the law on “People’s Rule” (Narodovladdia), which is supposed to establish legal mechanisms, such as referendums, by which Ukrainians could “set the main tasks for the authorities.” His media campaign emphasizes direct communication, with the leader addressing his supporters from a handheld phone. In the new selfie culture, this eliminates the usual distance between voters and politicians and establishes a more intimate connection to his supporters. He also invites direct input into the key decisions of his campaign. In one of Zelenskiy’s first Facebook videos as candidate, he called on his followers to “write a program with him” and then come up with “solutions,” since he does not want to make “empty promises” like “old politicians.” In another campaign message, he invited voters to send their nominations for prime minister, prosecutor general, and other government positions. This type of individual engagement of voters, which bypasses established intermediary channels, fosters a sense of “direct representation”—one of the hallmarks of populist leadership.
“Zelenskiy defies familiar ideological categorization, particularly the one that has guided Ukrainian voters in all elections since 2004.”
Finally, Zelenskiy’s popularity ultimately rests on supra-rational faith in him as a new type of post-ideological leader without any specific ideational or programmatic appeal. He avoids interviews on live talk shows where he could be pressed to offer specifics on any of his policies. His program is a collection of good wishes—from a secure and just state to wealthy and healthy citizens—without a realistic roadmap for how to achieve any of them. He substitutes traditional political rallies with free comedy shows staged in cities around the country. Most importantly, Zelenskiy defies familiar ideological categorization, particularly the one that has guided Ukrainian voters in all elections since 2004. His foreign policy positions, particularly support for NATO and EU membership, may be in line with the representatives of the former “orange” camp. Other views, however, particularly on the need for a negotiated solution to the Donbas conflict, non-discriminatory policies regarding use of the Russian language, and pluralism in memory politics, are closer to the preferences of traditional “blue” voters in Southeastern Ukraine.
Rather than alienating voters from both sides, however, Zelenskiy has managed to create a broader coalition of support that transcends old ideological divides. The latest polls indicate that he maintains a strong lead in the Southern and Eastern regions, but is also ahead in Central and parts of Western Ukraine (excluding Halychnyna), and even in Kyiv. His voting coalition is much younger than that of his opponents, consisting mainly of voters under 45. Moreover, Zelenskiy leads among voters in all income groups, which shows that the appeal of his brand of populism is not based on exploiting socio-economic cleavages and class hatreds. Rather, it combines a chance for radical intergenerational change (and “kicking the rascals out”) with a promise to give adequate representation to multiple discontented groups that have been either ignored, dismissed, or duped by established political parties.
Can “Old Elites” Still Triumph?
Although the likelihood of Zelenskiy’s utterly improbable victory has been rising, it remains far from assured. The polls have been indicating that he could comfortably defeat either Tymoshenko or Poroshenko in the runoff election. Recent allegations against Poroshenko’s closest ally, who stands charged with profiting from improper defense sector contracts, have heightened the prospect of electoral backlash against the ruling elites. However, there are at least three reasons why Zelenskiy’s current popularity may not necessarily transform into his victory at the polls.
“Zelenskiy’s share of the vote might be just half of what the polls now predict, which would further tighten the race.”
Firstly, 21 percent of Zelenskiy’s supporters have rarely or never voted and only 52 percent of them say that they “always vote” (compared to the 78 percent of Poroshenko’s and Tymoshenko’s supporters who say that they “always vote”). Hence, voter mobilization will be decisive for the success of his campaign. However, Zelenskiy lacks Tymoshenko’s party network and Poroshenko’s administrative levers of control. His campaign has offices only in major cities; they are often staffed by volunteers with no prior political experience and lack the resources for door-to-door canvassing. Zelenskiy also avoids visiting smaller towns and staging large open-air public rallies. While aspiring to build a genuine grassroots movement, his campaign remains primarily an online phenomenon. This raises doubts about its ability to organize an effective “get out the vote” effort capable of targeting his potential supporters, especially in rural areas (which account for about one-third of the country’s population). Without such an effort, Zelenskiy’s share of the vote might be just half of what the polls now predict, which would further tighten the race.
Secondly, there have been numerous allegations about attempts by leading candidates to buy votes or their plans to falsify the election results. On the one hand, the refusal of Interior Minister Arsen Avakov to back Poroshenko politically allows for internal institutional checks that could prevent mass voter fraud on the election date. However, in a relatively close race, even minimal falsifications may prove decisive for the outcome of the election. Zelenskiy is expected to have representatives in only about one-third of precinct electoral commissions, which means that his campaign may not have a sufficient number of trained monitors to expose and stop fraud.
Thirdly, the low salience of candidates’ experience and qualifications is contingent on the absence of major destabilizing events in the coming weeks. So far, Zelenskiy has largely escaped direct questioning from journalists on the specifics of his policies. Meanwhile, conventional reputation attacks that exposed his business interests in Russia, oligarchic backing from Kolomois’kyi, and past scandalous statements have failed to stop his rise in the polls. Voters clearly judge him by a different set of standards than they do ordinary politicians. His lack of governing experience may actually be viewed as an asset by those who see 2019 as a transformative election. This could, however, change in the event of a sudden national security crisis, which could shift the focus of the campaign and substantially raise the immediate risks of electing an inexperienced candidate. Violent clashes between the far-right group National Corps and the police in Kyiv and Cherkasy in early March also indicate that there is the potential for internal turmoil. If the value of political experience increases, Zelenskiy may be unable to expand or even maintain his electoral base.
“Ukraine’s 2019 electoral race has pointed to the major disconnect between the authorities’ nation-building priorities and the preferences of an average Ukrainian, who seeks clean government, a dignified income, and a pluralistic society.”
Irrespective of its outcome, Ukraine’s 2019 electoral race has already been revealing in a number of ways. It has pointed to the major disconnect between the authorities’ nation-building priorities and the preferences of an average Ukrainian, who seeks clean government, a dignified income, and a pluralistic society. It has demonstrated that despite years of armed conflict and government coercion, Ukrainians remain largely immune to base nationalistic appeals or crude state propaganda. The election campaign has also proved that despite the government’s use of authoritarian practices, Ukraine maintains a degree of openness and competitiveness in its electoral process that is rare in the post-Soviet space. At the same time, the barriers to entry into the top league of Ukrainian politics are still exceedingly high, making every presidential race essentially a contest between the super-rich. The political dominance of long-time heavyweights Poroshenko and Tymoshenko could therefore be challenged only by a celebrity figure like Zelenskiy, whose name recognition and media backing level the playing field for the three of them. Access to the Ukrainian political arena is still highly restricted; it remains off limits for those without elite connections. As Joseph Schumpeter observed, ultimately people neither raise nor decide issues, but issues affecting them are raised and decided for them—either by established “machine” politicians or by successful political “neophytes” posing as “people’s servants.”
Sergiy Kudelia is Associate Professor of Political Science at Baylor University and a member of PONARS Eurasia.