Ukraine election: will voter anger propel TV comic to presidency?

Ukraine goes to the polls on Sunday with a comic who plays the president on his own TV show the favourite to become the next president in a protest vote against the country’s leaders.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, an actor with no prior political experience, is likely to win the first round with a lead of up to 10% in some polls. Behind him are Petro Poroshenko, the current president who made a fortune from his confectionery empire, and Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister who has decried corruption and promised to boost pensions and cut heating bills. If no candidate wins a majority, the top two will face each other in a runoff later in April.

Latest polling shows that Zelenskiy would defeat either candidate in a head-to-head race, although analysts caution that could change closer to election day.

“The Zelenskiy phenomenon is the intelligent way to say ‘against all’,” said Balazs Jarabik, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “He has been tapping into the overall atmosphere of no trust by offering his alternative presidency.”

That is backed by the data showing that Ukrainian voters are fed up with stalled reforms, a slow economic recovery, rising utility costs and a grinding war with Russian-backed separatists in the country’s southeast.

According to data from the Rating Group polling agency, 69% of respondents in a March poll said they do not trust Poroshenko, and 55% said they do not trust Tymoshenko, who has spent more than two decades in Ukrainian politics. Another poll this year showed that only 8% of Ukrainians trust parliament, and just 16% trust the presidency.

Zelenskiy’s candidacy has blurred the distinction between reality and TV. On Servant of the People, he plays a teacher who is vaulted into the presidency after his rant against corruption goes viral. Pundits have likened him to Donald Trump or Italy’s Beppe Grillo, but he prefers to liken himself to Ronald Reagan (and has dubbed the US president in a biopic on Ukrainian television). Zelenskiy’s policies have remained vague and even he appears surprised by his campaign’s success.

His candidacy has also survived revelations about his film company’s business interests in Russia, as well as questions about his business relationship with the oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky. Zelenskiy has focused less on Ukraine’s conflict with Russia than other candidates, saying he wants to establish direct negotiations with Russia to end the conflict in Donbass but providing few details about how he plans to do that.

“The only reason why we and other candidates think he can get to the second round will be with falsifications,” said Alex Ryabchyn, a Ukrainian MP from Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party, noting recent reports that money was being given directly to voters in exchange for support. “This is a red line for us.”

Tymoshenko, a leader in the country’s 2004 “orange revolution”, served as the country’s prime minister and was later jailed under President Viktor Yanukovych. She was freed after Yanukovych was toppled in the 2014 Euromaidan revolution. Once the leader in this year’s presidential campaign with a popular platform opposing rising utility costs, she has fallen back in the polls.

Despite widespread frustration with politics, turnout is expected to be high. Pollsters have claimed that as many as 80% of registered voters could cast a ballot, although analysts say between 60-70% is more likely. High turnout will favour Zelenskiy’s campaign, which is relying on young voters and support in the country’s Russian-speaking south-east to win.

Poroshenko’s polling numbers have shot up as the elections have approached, although he is still projected to lose a runoff with Zelenskiy. The next president of Ukraine will likely be determined by a battle between Zelenskiy’s effort to get out his young base and the efficiency of Poroshenko’s powerful political machine.


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