On April 21, comedian-turned-politician Volodymyr Zelensky won the presidential election in Ukraine, a country that has been at war with Russia since 2014, and where endemic corruption has inhibited economic growth.
Ukraine, which gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, has since faced significant challenges in establishing democracy. The current election, judged free and fair by international observers, is expected to strengthen civilian rule here.
The presidential election saw 39 candidates representing several power groups in Ukraine, including current officeholder Petro Poroshenko, who sought reelection. The only serious challengers to Poroshenko were former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in her third bid for the top office, and Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian who became famous after playing the character of Ukraine’s president on a TV show.
In the first round held on March 31, Zelensky emerged as the most popular choice, with the incumbent Poroshenko and Tymoshenko trailing. Since none of the candidates garnered more than 50% of the vote, a runoff election was held between Zelensky and Poroshenko on April 21.
While the sitting president ran on a nationalist agenda, the newcomer Zelensky’s campaign focused on ending corruption, holding talks with Russia, and making military spending more transparent.
In the runoff election, Zelensky secured victory with over 73% of the vote. Zelensky’s assumption of office in June will make Ukraine the second country in the world after Israel where both the President and Prime Minister would be Jewish.
Since becoming free of Soviet rule, many Ukrainians have been wanting to move closer to the EU and the West, a shift that has been Russia has tried to prevent.
In 2013, Ukraine’s pro-Russia President Victor Yanukovych ignored popular opinion by rejecting an association agreement with the EU, triggering an outburst of public anger. Protesters rallied for months in what is now known as the Euromaidan Revolution. To crush the uprising, Yanukovych ordered snipers to fire on protesters, leaving over a hundred dead. Fearing an intense backlash, Yanukovych fled to Russia in February 2014. In the same month, Russian forces invaded Ukraine, taking control of the eastern Crimea region.
The two countries continue to be at war, with the conflict claiming over 13,000 lives and leaving more than 15 lakh internally displaced.
The void created by Yanukovych’s departure was filled Petro Poroshenko, an industrial magnate who rode to power on a nationalistic pitch. Since taking office, Poroshenko has underlined the use of the Ukrainian language in public institutions and has managed to terminate the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s three-centuries-old affiliation with its parent body in Russia. Poroshenko, however, failed to tackle corruption in the country, the principal demand for most Ukrainians. His 2014 campaign promise of selling off his business empire also remained unfulfilled.
Volodymyr Zelensky, an outsider in Ukrainian politics, landed in the spotlight after the success of his TV show “Servant of the People”, in which he played the role of a schoolteacher who goes on to become Ukraine’s president after a video featuring his character goes viral. His portrayal of an upright president resounded with many Ukrainians, who were already weary of the same oligarchs wielding power in the country.
Zelensky sought to convert this popularity into traction in the political arena, launching a presidential bid. His campaign stood out, as did his performances in debates with other candidates. Zelensky’s Jewish origin and native Russian language did not stand in the way of his soaring popularity in the country, and only a few took to Poroshenko’s campaign around “Army, Language, Faith”.
After his stunning victory, Zelensky proclaimed: “To all countries of the post-Soviet Union: Look at us. Anything is possible!”, emphasizing the success of the electoral process in Ukraine. This statement caused chagrin in Moscow.
While many have welcomed Zelensky’s rise to power, apprehension remains about his closeness to Ihor Kolomoisky, another oligarch accused in a $5.6 billion banking scandal who now lives in Israel.
Zelensky now hopes to broaden his power in the country in the legislative elections slated for October 2019.