The results of the first round of Ukraine’s Presidential election last week came as a sobering shock to not only incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, but to most rationally minded Ukrainian voters as well.
How was it possible that Zelenskiy, a comedian-actor with no political experience and no real program or policies of substance, was able to garner almost twice as many votes as arguably the most experienced, capable, and relatively successful President that Ukraine has produced since the Soviet Union broke up?
To be sure, Poroshenko is not without his flaws and faults. Many of the promises he made during the last election remain unfulfilled. Corruption is still a major issue, egregious crimes of the recent past remain unpunished, and the oligarchs still pull all the economic and political strings in Ukraine. Nonetheless, if one looks at his record impartially, there has been more progress and reform during his term than in all the previous years since 1991 combined.
It would be safe to say that his predecessors were far more interested in pillaging the country’s wealth than in looking after the interests of their long-suffering Ukrainian brethren. Poroshenko would not have been my ideal choice for President had I a vote in this, but still I find it hard to accept the motivations of all those disgruntled voters that cast their ballots for Zelenskiy.
I think well known diaspora political pundit Taras Kuzio had it right when he said “The Zelensky phenomenon is not pro-Zelensky or even anti-Poroshenko, but anti-all of the Ukrainian politicians who have led Ukraine until now.” The vote was a clear indictment of the existing Ukrainian political establishment. It says in effect that we do not believe or trust any of you. After two Maidan revolutions, countless promises, endless games of political musical chairs with the same disreputable cast of characters, a significant number of Ukrainians, especially the young, have said unequivocally that they would rather vote for someone totally unqualified than have more of the same, the thinking being that at least he is not one of “them.”
What happened was clearly motivated by anger and frustration. It was a visceral reaction fueled by unrealized hopes and dreams. I can understand and empathize with the powerful emotions behind this bit of electoral anarchism. At the same time, I am convinced that there is a clear and present danger in pursuing this fantasy that Zelenskiy is a solution to anything, never mind the critical state of affairs that Ukraine finds itself in. Electing Zelenskiy as President would be a case of political masochism, inflicting a “cure” that could be worse than the disease.
Zelenskiy has been typecast by his political opponents as a “clown”, undeserving of any serious consideration for political office. In Ukrainian politics, ridicule and character assassination are standard practice. To be fair, he is not the moron he is often made out to be. He is a reasonably well-educated person with a law degree, a popular performer and a successful millionaire businessman in the entertainment field. He has made many promises to solve the significant real grievances that the average Ukrainian is struggling with.
The real issue is that he has provided no blueprint or program as to how he will do this. It is easy to make promises; the challenge is to actually implement them within the constraints of the law, the constitution and the political infrastructure that currently exists in Ukraine. Further, he has no established political base or team of people experienced in politics and government that he can turn to.
His primary backer appears to be a notorious oligarch and rival of Poroshenko’s by the name of Kolomoiskyi, and his current campaign team includes some dubious characters that served under former disgraced President Yanukovich. This raises some serious questions as to who will be pulling the strings if he is elected.
Unless Zelenskiy provides a clear roadmap as to how specifically he will tackle Ukraine’s current existential issues and who he will bring into government, we should view his promises with a great deal of skepticism. It is far more likely that the oligarchic wolves in Ukraine and the Russian Putin bear in Moscow will make an easy meal of him should he become President.
For Poroshenko, this is now the moment of truth. He has only some three weeks before the second and final round of voting to persuade Ukrainians to vote with thought rather than emotion. After the results of the first round came out, Poroshenko acknowledged that the vote was a “hard Lesson” and that “I critically and soberly understand the signal that society gave today to the acting authorities.”
That remains to be seen. I find it hard to fathom how he failed to appreciate the degree of disenchantment with his performance and particularly on those issues like corruption, oligarchic hegemony, judicial reform and economic equity, that so anger and frustrate the average Ukrainian.
If he is to turn things around in the time remaining, he needs to clearly spell out a concrete plan of action and priorities that address these critical concerns, or he will shortly find himself passing on the Presidential bulava to a comedian, and that is no joking matter.