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The loser and the winner: Poroshenko and Zelensky debate each other during the election campaign. Picture: Адміністрація Президента України (CC BY 4.0)
Kiev

Is Ukraine’s president more than just a comedian?

A comedian won the presidential elections in Ukraine by such a large margin against the acting president Petro Poroshenko that the question arises: How the heck is that possible?

Published: May 4, 2019, 10:59 am

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    On Tuesday, April 30th, the Central Election Commission of Ukraine summed up the final results of the presidential elections. Vladimir Zelensky scored 73,22 percent, and Petro Poroshenko could not get a quarter of the votes: 24,45 percent. The gap between the candidates was more than 48 percent. The overall turnout in the second round of the presidential election, which took place on April 21st, was 18 491 837 voters (61,37 percent).

    These results in the presidential elections came as a shock to all those who could not believe that Zelensky with his complete lack of experience in politics and background as a comedian would have had a chance to win. But lots of experts, social and political analysts were far from being surprised by the outcome of the elections.

    Alexey Chesnakov, a director of the Russian Center for Political Conjuncture, considers the results of the Ukrainian elections to be consistent with the forecasts of sociologists and trends that have developed in Ukrainian society.

    “The result of Zelensky demonstrates that the people of Ukraine are tired of the rhetoric offered by the political class. The Ukrainian population demands renewal and new faces. Zelensky received as many votes as he could ask for. While none of the old tricks helped Poroshenko. People wanted to hear speeches about peace, justice and the future from, but Poroshenko offered them a tough militaristic agenda regarding the war with Russia and Putin. His results may be considered humiliating for the current president.”

    Basically, the people of Ukraine not just wanted to hear new promises from Poroshenko but to see which of the old ones were somehow fulfilled by him. Obviously, there are not that many things for him to brag about. Here is a brief list: promises which Petro Poroshenko has been making during 5 years of his presidency vs reality.

    1. “Antiterrorist operation in Donbass will last a few hours.” On May 28th, 2014, Poroshenko declared: “The antiterrorist operation cannot and will not last two or three months. It should and will last hours. Soon we will see the effectiveness of the antiterrorist operation.” As a result, the antiterrorist operation (ATO) officially ended almost on the fourth anniversary of the presidency of Poroshenko – on April 29th, 2018. But then only as a formal term. In actual fact the war continues, and the ATO was just renamed to “joint force operation”.

    2. “1 000 hryvnia per day.” The second most famous – and to this day unfulfilled – promise of Poroshenko: to pay participants in the ATO a thousand hryvnia (around 38 dollars) per day. He voiced this promise three days before the presidential elections of 2014. In fact, soldiers on the front line of the ATO zone did not receive even ten thousand hryvnia a month – which is less than 330 hryvnia (around 12.5 dollars) per day.

    3. “I will sell all my main business assets.” On July 11th, 2014 – six weeks after the elections – Poroshenko stated that he had given the command to hire an investment consultant, who would begin pre-sales preparation for Poroshenko’s business empire whose main asset is “Roshen” – a huge network of confectionery factories all around Ukraine and partly in some Russian towns. He clarified that he would demand from every member of his team to get rid of the business and devote themselves to serving the people. Half a year after this statement was made and Poroshenko’s main assets were still not sold, the president of Ukraine, answering journalists’ questions, said that instead of being sold, “Roshen” had been transferred to the management of the Rothschild bank – in a so-called “blind trust”. Despite the “blind trust”, “Roshen” is still managed by all the top managers of Poroshenko’s team. Business seems to be successful – in the fall of 2018 “Roshen” opened a new factory in Boryspil (a town in the suburbs of Kiev). Even the plant in the Russian Lipetsk, despite all of Poroshenko’s attempts to persuade his dedicated patriotic voters that it had been closed long ago, continues to pay taxes to the budget of the Russian Federation.

    4. “The dollar will equal 10 hryvnia.” In April 2014, at the height of his election campaign, Poroshenko was confident about predicting the future of the Ukrainian currency rate against the US dollar. “We will retrace the course. The dollar should be no higher than ten [hryvnia],” Poroshenko stated on one of the television channels. For now, the rate of the dollar to the hryvnia equals 26-28 hryvnia per dollar. Which is eloquent proof that Poroshenko has once again failed to fulfill his promise.

    5. “Status quo for the Russian language.” Looking at today’s Poroshenko who did everything in his power to rush through a law on the exclusive status of the Ukrainian language, it is hard to believe that five years ago he had been enthusiastically quoting article 10 of the Constitution of Ukraine. “I will be guided by article 10 of the Constitution, which defines the Ukrainian language as a state language, but especially emphasizes the rights of the Russian language and guarantees the free development of all other languages. I consider it as expedient to maintain the status quo as regards the language issue in order to ensure the unity of the Ukrainian political nation” – such a promise was included in the election program of Petro Poroshenko in 2014. In fact, general “Ukrainization” has become one of Poroshenko’s main reforms. During his presidency, language quotas on radio and TV were introduced and the law “On ensuring the functioning of the Ukrainian language as a state language”, which prescribes the exclusive use of the Ukrainian language in almost all spheres of life, was adopted.

    Thus, Petro Poroshenko had “won” a large drop in ratings and disappointment among the Ukrainian population – first of all, in the group of middle-aged people who were voting for him during the elections of 2014. Despite that, another key factor of Poroshenko’s failure lies in his total inability to appeal to the young electorate.

    Igar Tyshkevich, expert for the International and Domestic Politics Program of the Ukrainian Institute of the Future, mentions two main causes which made Zelensky’s victory possible: public demand for new faces in politics and the activities of young people who sympathized with the comedian.

    “Poroshenko, Boyko, Timoshenko, Gritsenko and Smeshko [top candidates during the first round of the presidential elections] had already worked in government and public positions. The electoral field of voters who wanted to see new politicians remained empty, and Zelensky had a wider field for maneuvering. Another thing to keep in mind – the main candidates had been appealing to people of more advanced age, and not to young people. The campaign of Petro Poroshenko under the slogan ‘Army. Tongue. Faith’, was designed mainly for people aged 45+, which was confirmed by sociologists. Yulia Tymoshenko was trying to find a way to appeal to young people, but did not receive the desired level of support and switched to older people, talking about pensions, tariffs, etc. In fact, of all the candidates, none except Vladimir Zelensky, had appealed to the young electorate,” says Igar Tyshkevich.

    In addition, many experts share the idea that a phenomenon such as Vladimir Zelensky has far deeper origins and centers around the psychosocial or even metaphysical underpinnings of the typical Ukrainian mindset. A Russian journalist and writer, Leonid Radzikhovsky, who is also an expert in the science of psychology, holds that the Ukrainian people voted not so much for Zelensky the real-life individual but for the image he embodied in the TV serial “People`s Servant” where he plays the role of a history teacher, Vasily Goloborodko. In the series, after miraculous turns of the plot, he became the Ukrainian president.

    “Zelensky is a fairy tale, after all, people voted not for him, but for Vasily Goloborodko. For the man in the serial says what people want to hear today: that Ukrainian top bureaucrats are just nomenklatura fat pigs, that all these boars must be slaughtered. Goloborodko says everything that people want to hear. And people want this fairy tale to come true,” reckons Leonid Radzikhovsky.

    Thus, there are plenty of opinions and thoughts on how Zelensky could manage to become a leader of the second-largest European state with zero experience in politics. But maybe the more important question would be how Zelensky is going to govern this state.

    Alexey Makarin, deputy head of the Russian Center for Political Technologies, thinks that the most important issue facing Zelensky should be his first steps as a president. That is extremely crucial, given that there are forthcoming parliamentary elections in Ukraine, scheduled for autumn 2019.

    “Soon we have parliamentary elections, and there Zelensky might have a problem,” says Makarin. “Voters may already experience the effect of disappointment when they will somehow suspect that he is actually the same as everyone else. Plus, there could be disappointments from his first steps. Most likely, there will be disappointments in connection with those who would be in the government: there might be quite recognizable people from the old elite, which can cause rejection. The legitimate question arises: ‘now that he has won the presidential election, what is going to be next?'”

    The “What next?” question is indeed very appropriate in the political, social and economic situation faced by Ukraine. The war in the south-eastern part of the country, the horrible decline in quality of life, soaring unemployment, spiralling economic crisis and rampant corruption – this is just the most general and brief list of the problems within the Ukrainian state. Vladimir Zelensky was elected by the Ukrainian people as a candidate who offered 10 main points on how he was going to solve these problems. These are: to legitimize full democracy and reports from the authorities to the Ukrainian people, to organize the impeachment and recall of those officials who “are not serving to the state”, to end a war with Russia in Donbass, to win against Russia in the information war, to arrest corrupt officials, to stop being dependent on oligarchs, to join the EU and NATO by holding a referendum, to develop the economy and welfare, to reform the healthcare system, to establish a “Ukrainian Las Vegas” with free zones for prostitution and gambling, to be always open for a dialogue with the ordinary people of Ukraine.

    Obviously, there is no clear understanding of what is going to happen in Ukraine with Zelensky as its leader. According to Ukrainian legislation, Zelensky should enter into the presidential office not later than 30 days after the official announcement of the election results. That means that approximately within a month Ukrainians will start observing exactly who the “dark horse” is that they have elected with a surprising level of consent and spontaneity, and whether a list of expectations vs reality would look better during Zelensky’s presidency than in Poroshenko’s case.

    ksenia.medvedeva@freewestmedia.com

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