Trust is a scarce resource in Ukrainian politics. Could a TV president be the one to deliver it in the upcoming elections?
Sluga Narodu (Servant of the People), Ukraine’s most popular TV show, tells the story of a history teacher who unexpectedly becomes president of the country. Its protagonist, Vasil Holoborodko, recovers from the shock of his victory to set out on a crusade against corruption and all sorts of other abuses of power, promising to serve his people as best he can. He is sincere, determined, funny, and modest – he travels to work by bike. Holoborodko has won the hearts of Ukrainians, around 4.7m of whom watch each episode. The show’s third season will start in March 2019, coinciding with Ukraine’s real-life presidential elections.
Have Ukrainians come to believe that Zelensky actually is Holoborodko? Unlikely. However, they seem to believe that he can be Holoborodko.
The line between fiction and reality first began to blur in March 2018, when Sluga Narodu’s success inspired the creation of a political party of the same name. Volodymyr Zelensky – the dynamic comedian, actor, and producer who plays Holoborodko – announced in January 2019 that he would run for the presidency. He now leads the polls, despite running against both the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko, and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The most recent poll gives Zelensky as much as 26.9 percent of the vote, with Poroshenko at 17.7 percent and Tymoshenko at 15.8 percent.
Have Ukrainians come to believe that Zelensky actually is Holoborodko? Unlikely. However, they seem to believe that he can be Holoborodko. Ukrainian voters are desperate for a leader they can trust. Yet trustworthiness is hard to come by. Despite his numerous achievements in signing an Association Agreement with the EU, obtaining a visa-free regime with the Schengen zone, and preserving the state while fighting the war in the east, Poroshenko is often accused of having made Ukraine’s corruption problem even worse. He has sustained the country’s oligarchic system. An overwhelming 60.8 percent of Ukrainians have negative views of him. His most recent successes – helping the Ukrainian Orthodox Church win independence, and enshrining ambitions for NATO and EU membership in the Ukrainian constitution – have only marginally improved his poll rating.
Middle-class Ukrainians are deeply disillusioned. Some of their compatriots died in Maidan Square, participating in the revolution of dignity there five years ago. The pain of this is still fresh. Ukrainians feel they deserve better for the high price they paid. Is Tymoshenko compatible with the dignity they sought? She has a negative poll rating of 50 percent and, in one recent ranking of the foremost populists and liars in Ukrainian politics, she easily claimed the number-one spot. She still leads some polls, but support for her is waning.
Ukrainians severely distrust the authorities in general. This is clear from not only sociological studies but also from conversations with many residents of Kyiv. Such distrust is understandable, given their experience with decades of Soviet rule, deeply entrenched corruption, and oligarchy. Ukraine is a nation traumatised by the horror of Holodomor, the Soviet-engineered famine that killed between 6m and 8m people, including between 4m and 5m Ukrainians, in the 1930s. In their suspicion of the government, Ukrainians are keen to abolish immunity laws that prevent them from easily defenestrating and jailing politicians. Indeed, they see this as one of the most important reforms their country can make.
Zelensky seems to have understood this when he created the trustworthy figure of Holoborodko. If he can convince voters that he too can be trusted, he stands a very high chance of winning the presidential election. His negative rating is at just 20 percent. Recognising that politicians’ immunity from prosecution is deeply unpopular, he has made it his priority to abolish it. And realising that many Ukrainians fear strong governments, he has promised more exercises in direct democracy – via regular referendums.
One of the arguments against Zelensky is that he does not really have a policy programme. But many voters may think: neither did Holoborodko – who, through decency and cleverness, soon figured out how to do the right thing. At the very least, people could trust that Holoborodko would honestly try to act in the public interest. In the spirit of serving the people and allowing them to guide him, Zelensky has invited everyone to join his party – as long as they have no experience in politics.
Several political analysts based in Kyiv suggested last week that Zelensky will lose his lead in the polls as excitement about his campaign launch fades. However, negative feelings about both Poroshenko and Tymoshenko are so intense that it is hard to see how they can recover. Zelensky is likely to gain votes by sheer virtue of being someone else.
Zelensky’s opponents sometimes point out that many of his supporters are young people, who may be easily mobilised on social media but often fail to turn up on election day. Yet it was young Ukrainians who started the Maidan Revolution. Empowered by the experience, they want to take their future in their hands. Since the revolution, there has been a boom in start-up companies, while many young people have joined the army out of a sense that their country needs them, and out of pride in their Ukrainian identity. Although many young people are leaving Ukraine, those that stay might make another attempt to change the country – by voting.
Some observers argue that a nation at war needs an experienced leader and that this consideration will push voters away from Zelensky as election day nears. But a recent study shows that 70 percent of Ukrainians support some kind of compromise with Russia in Donbas and, under Poroshenko, there is unlikely to be any such accord. Zelensky, in contrast, has said that as president he would negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin – and then call a referendum on whether to accept the resulting agreement. It is not at all clear how this would work in practice but, for many voters, it could be worth a try.
In fact, it is not at all clear how any aspect of a Zelensky presidency would work in practice. The whole story is somewhat surreal. His victory in the election would reflect a grand experiment – for some, a crazy, irresponsible experiment; for others, a tempting, almost irresistible, one. By voting for Zelensky, Ukrainians would test a radical hypothesis: we can elect a trustworthy president.
Of course, it could all go awry. It might be a disaster. But having endured decades of endemic corruption that left many without access to adequate healthcare and other services, Ukrainians may feel that it is a risk worth taking. If the British can experiment with Brexit and the Americans with Donald Trump, Ukrainians might be willing to test a bold new theory too.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.