Ukraine’s Voters Believe “They Have Nothing to Lose”

President Petro Poroshenko (left) and Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Collage: UNIAN

Marco Levytsky, National Affairs Editor.

One of the biggest surprises of the 1962 Canadian federal election was the Quebec wing of the Social Credit Party of Canada (called Ralliement des créditistes in that province) which came from nowhere to grab 26 of the province’s 75 seats. Its leader Réal Caouette mixed Social Credit’s traditional social conservatism with ardent Quebec nationalism. A populist leader and charismatic speaker, Caouette appealed to those who felt left out and pushed aside by financial institutions, traditional politicians, and what they perceived as elitist intellectuals. He hit the mark among disillusioned rural Quebecers with the simplistic, but catchy slogan – “Vous n’avez rien à perdre” (You have nothing to lose).

Although we have not heard Volodymyr Zelenskyy, nor any other Ukrainian presidential candidate for that matter, adopt that slogan, it nevertheless very accurately catches the mood of the Ukrainian electorate in this 2019 election. As far as they are concerned, they have nothing to lose. How else do you explain the tidal wave of support Zelenskyy, a candidate with no political experience, who has based almost his entire campaign upon the image of a fictional president he plays on a television sitcom?

Some commentators still refuse to believe the numbers, thinking that maybe, at the last minute, Ukrainian voters will smarten up and vote for the tried and true incumbent, Petro Poroshenko. Not in your wildest dreams. The numbers are simply too large to ignore.

The first independent poll taken since the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election, run by The Sociological Group “Rating” gave 51 percent popular support for Zelenskyy, versus 21 percent for Poroshenko. The race was even more lopsided for Zelenskyy among respondents who intend to vote in the second round of the election on April 21 — 61 percent to 24 percent, with 15 percent undecided. Not only will Zelenskyy win, he may even set a new Ukrainian record as far as winning percentages are concerned.

Zelenskyy was leading Poroshenko “in all age groups” and “among the residents of the east, south, and centre” of the country, with a toss-up in the western region, “Rating” said of its most recent poll.

As for the feeling among Ukrainian voters that they have nothing to lose, we beg to differ. Depending upon how far Zelenskyy is prepared to accommodate Russian President Vladimir Putin in order to achieve peace, Ukrainians could have everything to lose – their independence, their sovereignty, their language, their culture and their church. That, of course, is a worst-case scenario, but it remains a scenario.

On the other hand, as we noted in last week’s editorial, we must respect the voters of Ukraine, reconcile ourselves to a Zelenskyy victory, keep an open mind and try to make the best of it. For one thing, we must acknowledge that as an unknown entity, Zelenskyy may still surprise his critics. One positive aspect is the support Zelenskyy enjoys among reformers who joined Poroshenko in 2014, but were eventually pushed out. Included among these are former Economy Minister Aivaras Abromavicius and former Finance Minister Oleksandr Danilyuk, both known for their resistance to corruption and their commitment to a Western path for Ukraine.

Abromavicius was a private equity investor of Lithuanian origin, who was responsible for a successful public procurement reform and a push for corporate governance improvements at Ukraine’s thousands of state-owned companies, before he resigned in 2016, accusing a Poroshenko-linked power broker of meddling with his reform efforts to enable corrupt schemes. He explained his support for Zelenskyy to Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky as follows: “I found him a good listener, a quick learner and a decent person… Everybody in Ukraine knows what to do but there’s no political will. Zelenskyy could be that hope, that platform, whereby people with the necessary political will could get significant powers.”

For his part, Danilyuk, says he hopes Zelenskyy will adopt a “radical agenda” including an overdue reform of the corrupt judiciary and the intelligence service, which often freelances by shaking down businesses. Zelenskyy supporters we have spoken to say that only someone who is outside the traditional political class can implement effective reform.

As we also noted in last week’s editorial, while Ukraine may be an emerging and still imperfect democracy, it is nevertheless a democracy, with a rapidly growing civil society which serves as a check on the power of the leadership. It also has an extremely volatile electorate which could elect an opposition parliament in six months should Zelenskyy fail to live up to expectations.

But the one singular fact we must all come to grips with is that a vast majority of Ukrainians honestly believe “they have nothing to lose” in this election. What has prompted such a widespread nihilistic attitude is the corruption of the political class and the corruption that permeates society. Poroshenko himself belongs to this political class and even though he has made some strides in the battle against corruption, it is too little, too late. A classic example is his announcement, on April 11, of the creation of a special anti-corruption court. Five years ago, when he was elected, even a year ago, that, would have meant something. But 10 days before the second round? Get serious. It will be quite justifiably viewed as a last-gasp effort.

But will Zelenskyy be any better? He himself is linked with a notorious oligarch – Ihor Kolomoysky, who is accused of stripping assets from his lender, Privatbank, which held most of Ukraine’s savings and was nationalized in 2016 with a US $5.6 billion capital shortfall. Kolomoysky’s TV channel, 1+1, is the main buyer of Zelenskyy’s productions. Long-standing Kolomoysky lawyer Andriy Bohdan works for the Zelenskyy campaign.

Zelenskyy will come into office with very high expectations, even though his support is primarily based upon an illusion created by a fictional television show and bolstered by a “we have nothing to lose” attitude. Should he not live up to these expectations, “vous n’avez rien à perdre” may soon turn into “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”