Why Ukrainians want to elect a comedian as president

The Ukrainian electorate has run out of patience.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy,
Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukrainian actor and candidate in the upcoming presidential election, hosts a comedy show at a concert hall in Kiev on February 22, 2019 [File: Reuters/Valentyn Ogirenko]

Ukraine is on the verge of yet another revolt. This time, however, Ukrainians will not take their anger out onto the streets in another revolution; rather, it looks like they are getting ready to quietly rebel against the political elite and their corruption in the polling booths, as they vote for the next president on March 31.

The ballot is a whopper, with the names of record-breaking 39 candidates on it. Even better, the leader in the race is the most unlikely candidate of them all: Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a comedian with no political experience or governance expertise.

Days before the vote, Zelenskyy is leading in the polls between eight and 15 percent ahead of the runner-up, incumbent President Petro Poroshenko. The two are likely to meet in a runoff vote, which will take place on April 21.

Zelenskyy’s most famous role is in a TV series called Servant of the People. He plays a poor, honest teacher who becomes president by chance. The comedian likes to say he “shares the values” of his character.

And just like in his TV series, Zelenskyy took Ukraine’s politics by storm. He was propelled to the very top by a popular TV channel owned by one of Ukraine’s top oligarchs, Igor Kolomoisky, who currently lives between Switzerland and Israel.

The channel gives ample airtime to both Zelenskyy, the candidate, and Zelenskyy, the actor. The actor even gets to shine in a whole raft of TV programmes and documentaries on the eve of the election, when campaigning is banned by law.

Both Kolomoisky and Zelenskyy deny a political connection, despite the fact that the oligarch’s lawyer is part of the comedian’s election campaign team, and his guard is accompanying him on the campaign trail.

Pollsters say Zelenskyy’s popularity is the result of the high name recognition he enjoys, and Ukrainians’ deep disappointment and disillusionment with their ruling elite. Voters are ready for a new face, even when they know it belongs to a man who has next to no competence in politics.

Deep disillusionment

A recent Gallup survey showed that Ukraine holds the world record in low trust in the government for the second year straight: Just nine percent have confidence in it, way below the regional median for former Soviet states of 48 percent, and the global average of 56 percent.

This is the price the political elite is paying for failing to live up to the promises of Ukraine’s 2013 Revolution of Dignity for economic growth, rule of law, transparency and higher standards of living.

More than five years on, unemployment and underemployment have pushed an estimated 3.2 million Ukrainians (about one in 10 adults) to seek work abroad on a permanent basis, while many others take up temporary jobs outside the country every year. Poverty rates are high, and so is inequality.

A United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report found that some 60 percent of Ukrainians were living below the poverty line in 2016, as Ukraine remains one of the poorest nations in Europe. Meanwhile, its oligarchs continue to grow richer; in 2018 local media reported that the combined wealth of the country’s 100 richest people has jumped by 43 percent to $37bn in just one year.

Competitive Ukrainian business has also taken a hit.

“In my worst nightmares I couldn’t imagine this is where we would be now,” Yevgeniy Utkin, an entrepreneur and pioneer of the IT industry in Ukraine, told me recently.

He is not upset because his IT business has been raided a few times by masked law enforcement agents, searching for proof of financial crimes (and not making any charges afterwards) – a common occurrence in today’s Ukraine which has come to be known as “maski show”. Nor is he upset about the loss of most of his Russian assets after Moscow annexed Crimea and started the war in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Like many others in the business sector, Utkin has simply lost hope over time.

He told me of one incident in particular that made him disillusioned early on. In the summer of 2014, soon after Poroshenko was inaugurated, Utkin approached him with an idea for a hi-tech solution for army radio communications. He was referred to a senior administration official and fellow multimillionaire, who was more interested in inviting Utkin to join him on a yachting trip to Sardinia. Utkin gasped – and declined.

Just a few weeks later, in August, one of the fiercest battles of the war took place in the eastern Ukrainian city of Ilovaisk. At least 366 Ukrainian soldiers died, 429 were injured and hundreds captured in an ambush. There were many factors that led to this tragedy, including a significant presence of Russian troops, the government later found. But Utkin was struck by the major role that poor communication played in this tragedy, and it was exactly the problem he had wanted to fix.

Broken promises

Poroshenko surfed into the presidency on the wave of revolution and war, and on the promise of change. He said he would end the war within days, come after the mighty oligarchs and “personally oversee” the fight against corruption.

Four years later, Poroshenko had to apologise for making a hasty and arrogant declaration about ending the war

He had much more leverage to fulfil his other promises – fighting oligarchy and corruption, but did equally poorly on both of them.

Oligarchs still control massive areas of the economy: energy, agriculture, media and access to state-owned monopolies and natural resources. They are difficult to rein in because the rule of law is hard to come by in Ukraine.

The European Business Association, which conducts a regular survey of CEOs to gauge Ukraine’s investment climate, found that 78 percent of its respondents were critically dissatisfied with the level of corruption in the country, 74 percent distrusted the judiciary, and 65 percent complained about the shadow economy

Less than a month ago, a series of journalistic investigations revealed that Oleh Hladkovsky, deputy head of the National Security and Defense Council and Poroshenko’s friend and former business partner, and his son, were allegedly involved in corruption related to defence procurement deals.

In the aftermath of the scandal, the Ukrainian president vouched to make corrupt officials “bring back every kopeck they had stolen with their teeth”.

That is terribly unlikely given that Ukraine’s judicial reform is failing.

In a recent illustration of this spectacular failure, a special commission in charge of appointing judges to the High Court of Ukraine gave positions to a number of judges with questionable track records, including some who have let dozens of drink-and-drive offenders walk free, are holding two passports (which is illegal in Ukraine), and have covered up for other corrupt judges – among other things. At the same time, Ukrainian judge Pavlo Parkhomenko, who has accumulated much recognition domestically and internationally for his human rights work, was the sole candidate to be rejected.

Pressure for change from outside

To be completely fair, there has been some change in Ukraine since 2013. Its gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 3.3 percent last year, the highest level since 2011. The Ukrainian banking sector was mostly cleaned up, with over 100 suspect banks closed and the National Bank completely reformed. 

The state-owned gas holding Naftogaz underwent a near-miraculous transformation and went from a net loss of 18 billion hryvnia ($2.2bn at the time) in 2013 to a record profit of 39.4 billion hryvnia ($1.5bn) in 2017. 

A national electronic procurement system Prozorro was launched to ensure that all public money is spent efficiently and transparently. It has saved an estimated $2.76bn in less than five years and won scores of international awards for innovation and excellence.

Significant reforms have started in the healthcare and education sectors, too.

And most importantly, for the average Ukrainian, the country now has a visa-free regime with its European Union neighbours.

But most of these reforms were made possible by pressure mounted by the Ukrainian civil society (which has very much been supported by the West) and international donors and partners, such as the United States, the European Union, Canada and others.

Each of these reforms also took a kamikaze-style leader, typically hailing from outside the existing system, who temporarily came in from the business sector or other walks of life to push through a specific cause.

After accomplishing the task, many of them left or were pushed out; others are lasting it out until the election, and still, others were sabotaged, and their efforts often reversed by the more politically shrewd players who fill senior government offices.

Thus, over the years, Ukraine’s political elite has proven in a multitude of ways that on its own it is incapable to bring about change of the scale and depth expected by its electorate.

In one episode of Servant of the People, Zelenskyy’s character tells the parliament that “the society has changed, and it’s no longer going to wait and forgive”. He then goes on to shoot all the parliament members with an automatic weapon.

The Ukrainian society has indeed changed and it clearly doesn’t want to wait and forgive any more. On March 31, it will most likely “shoot down” its failed political elite through the ballot box. Afterwards, what shape or form its growing anger will take is anyone’s guess.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.