On the evening of 31st March 2019, Volodymir Zelenskiy, former comedian, emerged as victorious in the first round of the Ukrainian presidential election with 30% of the vote. Petro Poroshenko, the incumbent president, ranked second with 16% of the vote, while his long-lasting rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, ranked third, with 13% of the vote.
The result is very impressive for Zelenskiy, as he doesn’t have any political experience prior to this campaign. He relied heavily on social media to engage with young Ukrainians and avoided traditional ways of campaigning such as frequent television appearances, debates and rallies. This is the second presidential election after the Euromaidan and many are calling it the most democratic and free that was ever hold in Ukraine.
The result represents a wake-up call to the Ukrainian political establishment. Although Zelenskiy put minimal efforts in talking about policy specifics, many voters, especially young people, chose to trust him because he represents the change they want to see in politics. Ukrainians are tired of seeing the same faces on the Ukrainian political stage for the last 20 years.
Petro Poroshenko was a confectionery magnate that generated his wealth in the 90s and entered politics in 1998. Yulia Tymoshenko became president of United Energy Systems Ukraine in 1995 and member of the parliament in 1996. Among other relevant candidates, Anatoliy Grytsenko entered politics in 2005, when he was named Minister of Defence while Yuri Boiko was named chairman of Naftogaz in 2002.
All these candidates may have different opinions, but they have one thing in common: all of them belong to the political establishment and they were at the forefront of politics for more than 15 years. The first round of the 2019 presidential election shows that Ukrainians are desperate for politicians that are not part of the establishment. Despite Zelenskiy didn’t offer credible policy solutions, voters perceived him as a sincere and trustworthy candidate who would tackle corruption because of his non-political background, age and TV role.
Corruption emerged as one of the most important issues in the eyes of Ukrainians. According to Transparency International, Ukraine ranks on the 120th place out of 180 on the corruption perception index and many Ukrainians encounter systematic corruption on a daily basis. Although Poroshenko promised during the 2014 presidential election that his administration was going to significantly reduce corruption and combat the influence of oligarchs, he came short in accomplishing these promises, to the exasperation of citizens and international partners.
Furthermore, Poroshenko’s links to Oleg Gladkovskiy who allegedly sold military equipment to the army at highly inflated prices and accusations against Tymoshenko concerning undeclared finances that were spent on a lobbying campaign in the US poured gasoline on fire. Poroskenko’s inaction, Ukrainians’ self-reflection on what was achieved in the five years since the Euromaidan and their daily encounter with systematic corruption makes corruption as one of the highest issues on the public agenda, something which highly benefited Zelenskiy.
The first round of the presidential election represents an important triumph for the democratic development in Ukraine. Although there are still some old tactics around (the candidacy of Yuri Tymoshenko, an unknow MP, to confuse the electorate and voter corruption), most of the important international organizations (OSCE, NATO, the Council of Europe and the European Parliament) stated that the election was fair and free. Natalia Bernatska, the Secretary of the Central Election Commission, declared that with the exception of a number of minor irregularities, there were no systemic violations of Ukraine’s electoral law. Free and fair elections represent a success for the people that identify with the values and goals of the Euromaidan and were a prerequisite to continue Ukraine’s integration in the EU and NATO. There were 39 candidates in the election and many analysts argue that without the Euromaidan, Zelenskiy could have never run or have the same success.
A negative outcome of the election is the populist rhetoric and nature of the candidates. Zelenskiy promises change while not proposing any concrete measure or plan. Poroshenko’s slogan “Army, Faith, Language” is tailored to appeal to nationalistic sentiments. Tymoshenko used inflammatory language against reforms undertaken by the government and promised lower energy prices, something which would not be possible under the stand-by agreement signed with the IMF.
In order to make democracy irreversible in Ukraine, politicians must stop trying to trick the citizens or appeal to their fear or anger by offering false promises or using aggressive rhetoric. Although this type of language is present even in the most developed democracies such as the Netherlands, Spain or the UK, Ukraine is a new democracy and it doesn’t afford to play with the fears and citizens as they might start seeking extreme alternatives that contrast the values of democracy and human rights.
Now that Zelenskiy is the main candidate to win the presidency (according to a poll from last week, 37-42 of Ukrainians consider to vote for him while only 17-19% consider to vote for Poroshenko), it is crucial that the debate should focus more on how exactly does Zelenskiy plan to run Ukraine. Zelenskiy came short in providing details to the media or to his voters about policy specifics for the most important issues: conflict with Russia, annexation of Crimea, anti-corruption, reforms. As well, Zelenskiy failed to address his links with Igor Kolomoisky, the oligarch that owns the TV channel 1+1 which hosted his show. There are suspicions concerning Zelenskiy’s business ties with him and he received media support from the television that Kolomoisky controls.
Although he has the “saviour” aura surrounding him, it is important for Ukrainians to remember that many Eastern European leaders failed to live up to the expectations of the “saviour” archetype. Should he become president, specifics on how his administration plans to address Ukraine’s biggest challenges are crucial in establishing a good working environment with the international community and to address the socio-economic concerns of his voters.