The joker becomes king: what happened in the Ukrainian election and why Chantal Mouffe might also vote for Zelenskiy
By Lisa J Walters, on 14 May 2019
Everything is changing. People are taking their comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke” – Will Rogers, American actor 1879-1935
It has been almost a century since American actor Will Rogers made that observation about US politics, yet in Ukraine’s 2019 presidential elections such a description has proved to be even more apt. Often referred to off the record as some kind of ‘Wonderland’, in Ukraine the roles of joker and king are now both being performed by just one person. Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a popular comedian, who’s been mocking politicians on stage for the past two decades, is the new President of Ukraine.
It all started with a TV show, The Servant of the People, where Zelenskiy plays a history teacher, who following an impassioned rant against corruption which went viral, much to everyone’s surprise, not least his own, becomes President of Ukraine. The real-life Zelenskiy says in the show he was portraying his pipe dream for Ukraine ─ a dream of an honest man becoming President and really changing the country for the better. Then people around him started talking. Why not try and make that dream come true? Imagine all the Ukrainian people, joining him in that dream? And though Zelenskiy may be a dreamer, after gaining over 73% of the votes in the second round of the Presidential elections, it’s clear he’s not the only one.
How Zelenskiy communicated his vision to the Ukrainian people, is quite shady, in terms of ethics, as he made full use of his media business to turn his dreams into reality. In fact, just days before the first round of these elections, a new season of The Servant of the People was aired on Ukrainian TV. A barely disguised three-act manipulation, the show took every opportunity to portray Zelenskiy in the best possible light, whilst discrediting his main rivals: incumbent president Petro Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The first episode, for instance, starts by showing a prototype of Poroshenko as a corrupt self-serving leader responsible for provoking a series of new Maidan revolutions. Then the second instalment imagines Yulia Tymoshenko as an equally corrupt and oligarch-serving president, whose failed leadership results in Ukraine fracturing into 28 independent republics, and thereby ceasing to exist. By the culmination of this dramatic, and, for the people of Ukraine, very emotional scenario, invoking as it does the ongoing conflict in the Donbass and Russia’s annexation of Crime, Zelenskiy’s character once again becomes president. Somehow (the exact details are never made clear) relying on his incorruptible personality and will power, he manages to mould the country back together and magically transform it into a very rich and successful state for decades to come.
There are perhaps two especially smart things about this. Firstly, the way Zelenskiy managed to promise everything people want from a president without giving any real-life promises that he could be held accountable for later. And secondly, by only giving a handful of interviews, having a rather generic programme, not revealing his team until the very last moment, avoiding political shows and debates, and giving no press conferences – he let his silence be filled by each voter in their own way. This allowed them to project their individual interpretations, however widely varied, onto Zelenskiy’s candidacy. Some saw in him a modern man of liberal views, others saw a ruthless corruption fighter, and others still saw a charismatic and fun young leader. For some he was pro-Russian, for others pro-European. He was anything anyone wanted him to be.
What’s worst is, that lacking any details of Zelenskiy’s actual plans for his presidency, even people who can clearly separate fact from fiction, viewed the series as if it were an illustrated version of his manifesto, carefully scrutinising each new episode for clues about what his foreign or economic policies might look like. This brings the concept of virtual politics to a whole new level, and not only demonstrates where Ukraine fits in relation to the global trends of post-truth and anti-politics, but also adds a completely new dimension. The further down the rabbit hole the campaigning went, the more surreal it became: challenging the incumbent President through Facebook videos, live streaming blood tests and debates in the country’s biggest stadium. The presidential race started feeling more and more like a Black Mirror episode, leaving Ukrainians hanging on the edge of their seats waiting for the resolution. And Zelenskiy was fully aware of the situation, joking during one of his comedy shows just before the elections: “Today we are having just a show, no agitation. *laughs* Just a show, fair and square, because you’ve paid money for it. *laughs and pauses* The world hasn’t seen anything like this before.” Indeed, political strategists around the globe will surely study the nuances of his campaign for years to come.
But, are people crazy for believing in such fantasies? Well, not really.
Populism, But Not As We Know It
Yes, Zelenskiy is a populist, but one who doesn’t quite fit with the popular Ukrainian understanding of the term. Here, populists usually promise highly desirable but completely unrealistic solutions to long-standing problems, such as slashing gas prices by at least half, imminent EU membership or swiftly returning Crimea. However, criticizing a Ukrainian politician for resorting to outlandish promises in order to get elected is like attacking a chocolate factory owner for selling confectionary. But at the beginning of his campaign at least, Zelenskiy’s programme appeared rather reasonable compared to those of most of the other aspiring presidents. He proposed reforms in all government branches, an improved business environment to give the economy a chance to ‘come out of shadows’, anti-corruption measures and even had space to promote environmental protection and recycling ─ a much neglected feature in other candidates’ manifestoes. However, the closer to the big day, and the higher the stakes, the more he also fell back on classic populist rhetoric.
Zelenskiy is certainly a populist by style, speaking ‘the language of the people’ and appealing to them directly either from the stage on his shows or via selfie-cam videos on his Instagram account. And just like many other populists, this ensured he gained quick and striking success, despite barely proposing any concrete solutions to popular problems and having zero experience in politics. But, dig a little deeper and it seems he is also a populist by ideology. His election programme, fittingly entitled “The Land of Dreams”, clearly invokes the Manichean dualism typical of populists’ worldviews: “There is only one division: us and them. Us means the People of Ukraine. Them means “political pensioners” [Referring to those elites that have been part of the system since way back when].” Then there are his speeches, where he often describes himself as “an ordinary man, the same as you”, in other words – one of the people, protesting against political elites who have been corrupting the country. He goes on to claim that he will fulfil the will of the people (volonté générale), by means of direct democracy that he is planning to implement through introduction of a series of new laws on referendums and impeachments.
Populists coming to power has already become commonplace across the globe, however, what differs Zelenskiy from the likes of Trump, Salvini, Orban, and their ilk, is that he is not at all right-wing. He isn’t offensive (except towards Poroshenko), racist, sexist, nationalistic or authoritarian but in fact is firmly against all that. What Zelenskiy does propose is a counternarrative to the one commonly presented by Ukraine’s nationalists; a narrative that crucially also seemed to be consistent with that of President Poroshenko. So, instead of dividing and polarizing Ukrainian society with his ideas and rhetoric, Zelenskiy is trying to unite it. Being Jewish and Russian-speaking, he repeats over and over in his interviews, that “we are all Ukrainians”, disregarding what language we speak, what ethnicity we are, or what religion we belong to. This is an inclusive, left populism, which appears to be more or less what Chantal Mouffe advocates.
Faith No More
But, don’t forget, there were also plenty of good reasons not to vote for Zelenskiy’s rival, Petro Poroshenko, after the two of them made it through to the second-round run-off. And since voting ‘No to All’ is no longer possible in Ukraine, Zelenskiy’s victory was much more about lack of faith in Poroshenko than a belief that the comedian is the ideal man for the role. Ukrainians are no different from other Europeans in being tired of the old corrupt political elites, a trend which has already helped populists get elected and force the agenda across the continent. And perhaps by not voting for Poroshenko after numerous scandals, the people of Ukraine have sent a strong message to those in power: corruption will not be tolerated. This appears to beg the question that if Zelenskiy’s voters are uneducated and misinformed, as Poroshenko’s supporters claim, does consciously voting for a politician embroiled in corruption demonstrate a much higher level of the critical thinking they say their opponents lack? However, to be fair to Poroshenko, many of the reasons given for his low approval rating can be attributed to both the mess he inherited from the Yanukovych regime, and the ongoing war with Russia (already five years and counting).
It could be argued that Zelenskiy’s rapid transition from political outsider to president via a blatantly populist campaign is comparable to the rise of Donald Trump, though this would be to neglect at least one crucial difference. Trump won by appealing to his voters’ fears: fear of Mexican immigrants, fear of ISIS, and fear of China’s impending domination. Yet the only campaign built on fear here was not Zelenskiy’s but Poroshenko’s: the fear of escalating Russian aggression if anyone but him were elected. Billboards displaying the reigning president squaring up to Vladimir Putin tête-à-tête appeared in the days before the final vote, with the slogan “21st April: the decisive choice” highlighting who Poroshenko thought his, and Ukraine’s true opponent is. Yet the move backfired. In contrast, Zelenskiy’s campaign of unity, encapsulated in the dreams of a country where no one is discriminated against, the war is over, people are wealthy, happy and healthy, instead gives hope. His is a ‘new face’ in politics, upon which people place this hope that he will be an honest, progressive and dynamic leader. Is it too big a stretch to say he has the populist style of a Trump, but with the moderate leftist ideology of an Obama? Could Poroshenko then be comparable to Hilary Clinton – the compromised political establishment candidate, voted out in despair at the prospect of more of the same?
However skilful Zelenskiy’s campaign was, many questions remain about how his presidency will unfold. Although much has been made of his lack of political experience, and the dangers that may cause, there may be at least some reasons for optimism.
A number of commentators have pointed out that by electing a Jewish Russian speaker, Ukraine ought to have finally silenced Kremlin propaganda about the country being run by a band of Russian-hating neo-Nazis. This result has also flown in the face of the clichés suggesting Ukraine is divisible purely along regional or linguistic lines. Dating back even beyond the Orange Revolution, Ukraine, at least in people’s minds is usually separated into the ‘Pro-European’ Ukrainian-speaking ‘West’ on one side, and the Russian-speaking ‘East’, which has tended to vote for candidates advocating closer ties to Moscow. With this in mind, Poroshenko boldly declared “Language! Faith! Army!” as his key platforms. ‘Language’ of course refers to de-facto Ukrainization politics, strengthening the status of Ukrainian as the only state language and eliminating Russian from media and public spheres, even introducing fines for breaking the language law. ‘Faith’ emphasizes Poroshenko’s desire to consolidate the separation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from the Moscow Patriarchate’s influence. ‘Army’ points to the critical importance of strengthening Ukraine’s military capacity to continue the defence against Russia. Yet, by presenting language and faith as personal, not state issues, and proposing a civic rather than ethnic understanding of nationhood, it was instead Zelenskiy who managed to unite people across the so-called ‘Orange’ West and ‘Blue’ East: winning 23 out of Ukraine’s 24 regions.
The results also demonstrate Ukraine’s positive progression into a functioning democracy, where the opposition stands a chance, freedom of speech prevails, and investigative journalism is on the rise. In a way, this has been the first real election Ukraine has had, its first real choice. For the first time it was not clear in advance who would emerge victorious, or even reach the second round. Many Ukrainians finally voted not according to the decisions of senior members of their family, but for those candidates whose values corresponded with their own, even if they didn’t expect them to win.
However, despite these positives, it is clear that Ukraine can, and must learn a lot from this election. Clarifying guidelines around media use in future campaigns to provide voters with a clearer picture of who and what they are voting for, as well as avoiding unethical disguised campaigning, would be a start. After all, an untried politician, constantly linked to another oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi during the campaign, who amid rumours of a recent leak tying him also to members of ousted former President Viktor Yanukovych’s crew, has still not indicated who he will appoint to key government posts, may be no better than the allegedly corrupt oligarch he has now replaced. On the other hand, Zelenskiy has managed to raise people’s hopes up very high. Whether he will manage not to let them down, remains to be seen, but this could provide an opportunity for a reboot of politics that Ukraine arguably needs.