The second round of voting in Ukraine’s Presidential election is now history, and as expected, incumbent President Petro Poroshenko was soundly trounced. The new President is an untested, unproven and arguably unqualified comedian actor by the name of Volodymyr Zelenskiy. He has no political credentials to speak of and won simply because, unlike all the other contenders, he is not part of the discredited political establishment that has ruled Ukraine for most of the past three decades. Those voting for him were not voting for a particular ideology or defined set of programs, they were symbolically showing the big finger to the crooks, oligarchs and political carpet-baggers that have dominated Ukraine since its independence.
Poroshenko mounted a furious campaign in recent weeks to paint himself as the hero-savior of Ukraine and Zelenskiy as a Putin/Kolomoisky puppet who would hand Ukraine to the Russians on a platter, but most Ukrainians didn’t buy any of it. It was a classic case of too little too late, and Poroshenko has only himself to blame. He grossly misread Ukraine’s disenchanted voters, and particularly the young ones.
While there is no doubt that he has done a creditable job at managing the war and certain aspects of the country’s evolution into a European state, he failed utterly in addressing the key grievances that led to the Maidan revolution and the overthrow of the previous Yanukovich regime. The pernicious rule of the oligarchs continues unabated and Poroshenko’s efforts at fighting corruption have been blatantly anemic. Poroshenko mistakenly calculated that his technocratic skills and personal charm would be sufficient to allay any discontent from the disgruntled masses. He was wrong and will now be paying the price for his lack of judgment.
It is all really very sad, since Poroshenko’s landslide election victory following the Maidan, placed him in a particularly powerful position to engineer the kind of revolutionary reforms that people on the Maidan had fought and died for. Regrettably, he wasted the opportunity, much as Yushchenko did following the Orange Revolution. Rather than pushing aggressively for the kind of radical reform that was necessary, he settled for a slow, incrementalistic approach, that barely dented the stranglehold of the oligarchic forces on the country’s politics and economy. He could have, and should have been more forceful, and the people would have stood strongly behind him. Now it is too late, and his credibility as well as his political future has now evaporated.
Zelenskiy won because his basic and only message really, is that he will move strongly and quickly to do what Poroshenko failed to do. Whether he will, or is even capable of doing so, is of course, highly problematic. There are serious doubts as to his political capabilities and knowledge. There are serious doubts about his political backers and possible masters. There are serious doubts as to who will be the people he puts in place to implement his populistic promises.
Just last week Zelenskiy finally introduced his “team”, the people that he will count on to implement his promises. They are a very mixed bag of entertainment business executives, young activist reformers, former Regions party functionaries, academics, little known bureaucrats and a few ex-cabinet ministers from previous governments. They are mostly neophytes to the brutal game of Ukrainian politics with a few veterans thrown in to provide some structure and continuity. Undoubtedly, they will be put to the test very quickly.
Electing Zelenskiy is a leap into the unknown, and possibly into the heart of darkness. It mattered little to those that voted for him. They were willing to take the chance because they have lost all faith in the existing political establishment that has been leading them by the nose since independence. The implication is that it can’t get any worse. Sadly, that notion is more than a little naïve. It can get worse, much worse, as Ukraine’s troubled history has often shown many times in the past.
Once again, Ukraine’s future has become a big question mark. The one consoling factor is that those same young people that put Zelenskiy into power, are just as capable of convening another Maidan should Zelenskiy fail to meet their high expectations. One thing Ukrainians have learned very well these past few decades is that they do have the ultimate power to bring down leaders and governments that betray them.
Zelenskiy will now have a small window of opportunity to prove that he is the real thing and not just a shallow entertainer or someone’s puppet. That question as to who the real Zelenskiy is should be answered very shortly.