Ukrainian screenwriter and comedian Volodymyr Zelensky won his country’s most recent presidential election on 21st April 2019 by a remarkable landslide, defeating incumbent Petro Poroshenko with 73.23% of the public vote. Perhaps more remarkable is the fact that his portrayed fictional television character, Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko, achieved the same political feat some three-and-a-half years earlier in the hit satirical television series “Servant of the People”, after a viral video criticising internal corruption and cronyism led to his unexpected election. In proving the Wildean adage true, life in Ukraine has begun to imitate art.
In just the span of four months, Mr Zelensky built his political campaign from the ground up and achieved the largest electoral majority in the former Soviet republic since its independence in 1991. The driving force behind this victory is the allure of neopopulism to the disenchanted Ukrainian electorate, an ideology defined as a “political strategy in which a leader…seeks popular support in an almost direct form, and overshadows political parties, the external mechanisms of control which define a democratic regime.” (Piquet Carneiro, 2011) While largely Latin American in its origins, the techniques that constitute neopopulist political campaigns seem perfectly moulded for contemporary anti-establishmentarianism in Eastern Europe.
The 2018 Corruption Perception Index, an annual report ranking countries’ corruption levels by Transparency International, proved telling of the problems plaguing Ukrainian governance. It places Ukraine 120th out of 180 states for political freedom – joint with the likes of Malawi and Liberia (Sorokin 2019). Elsewhere, Ukraine’s regional neighbours similarly rank poorly against the Index, with Russia, Serbia, and Moldova ranking 138th, 87th, and 117th, respectively. Former Soviet states are seedbeds for corruption among ministers, high-level bureaucrats, and business cronies, profiting off controlled privatisation of industries and juridical bribery. Indeed, fewer than 30% of the public believe in the possibility of free and fair trials in Ukraine’s courts, with a 99.5% conviction rate reminiscent of the country’s chequered Soviet past (Byrne 2010).
Mr Poroshenko, the current President of Ukraine and former Cabinet Minister, embodies the rotting core of his country’s political woes. An oligarchical billionaire, he draws on support primarily from the nationalists and Kievan metropolitan elite while simultaneously silencing any hopeful challengers. After all, it is the very crony oligarchs propping up his regime that happen to run the national media companies. Crucial for Mr Zelensky’s presidential ambitions was his ability to bypass this barrier as an already established public figure too noticeable to silence. For instance, Mr Zelensky and his campaign team used social media platforms far more effectively than his comparatively out-of-touch political opponents; on Instagram, Mr Zelensky trumps the incumbent Mr Poroshenko by some 4.7 million followers. Besides its usefulness for point-scoring and growing awareness among Ukraine’s younger and more politically disillusioned demographic, Mr Zelensky wielded the tool of social media to mount direct attacks against Mr Poroshenko, challenging him to a one-on-one televised debate at Kiev’s 70,000-seat stadium through Facebook – a challenge to which Mr Poroshenko met head-on (Karmanau 2019).
Mr Zelensky’s campaign was unorthodox not only in its lack of conventional politicking and canvassing, but also in its lack of identifiable policy. His official online campaign platform website does not bring up his manifesto or white papers, rather a redirection to his Facebook page. The direct forms of electioneering involved in neopopulism often lead to both increased engagement as well as misinformation among the electorate. Accusations have mounted of Mr. Zelensky “exacerbating [a] misperception” through his very candidacy, in that presidency alone could be a meaningful vehicle for institutional reform (Avramov and Orr, 2019). On the contrary, the prime minister heads the executive branch of the Ukrainian political system and is, by extension, the one directly responsible for things like tackling corruption and delivering economic reform; the presidency, by contrast, is more ceremonial and with no statutory competencies. Coupled with Ukraine’s ongoing geopolitical troubles with Russia, both in their implicit political puppeteering of domestic politics and explicit military tensions in the Kerch Strait and in Crimea, Mr. Zelensky is unlikely to deliver many of the optimistic promises that brought him to prominence.
The good news is that Mr. Zelensky’s convincing electoral win bodes well for the future of Ukraine’s political and diplomatic trajectory. His victory, which relied on the support of Ukraine’s youth, symbolises a categorical rejection of the Russian model of governance for the foreseeable future. People are growing ever tired of economic and bureaucratic stagnation in their country and look to the West for political guidance – and potential integration of Ukraine into the Euro-Atlantic community. What this means for Ukraine’s regional neighbours is, at the moment, somewhat unclear. Any political breakaway from the Kremlin may entail soft- or hard-power flexes, and challengers with the support base of Mr. Zelensky seldom appear, let alone challenge for office. Those that do exist are often in cahoots with Russia regardless. The question is whether Mr. Zelensky’s Ukraine will face these challenges too and, if so, how successfully will they be met.