The Zelensky enigma: A different kind of populist

The second round of Ukraine's election for president takes place on 21 April; the comedian and political novice Volodymyr Zelensky is in the lead

Large parts of Ukraine’s elite, chattering classes, diaspora, and foreign friends are horrified by the likely outcome of the second round of the country’s presidential elections, scheduled for 21 April. After winning the first round by a wide margin, Volodymyr Zelensky – an actor, comedian, and businessman – looks poised to become Ukraine’s next president. To be sure, the candidate in second place, incumbent president Petro Poroshenko, still has a chance to overtake Zelensky. Yet it appears unlikely that he will be able to do so.

This is not only because Zelensky won more than 30 percent of the vote – almost twice as much as Poroshenko – in the first round, on 31 March. So far, it seems probable that many, if not most, of those who voted for other candidates – such as Yuliya Tymoshenko, Yuriy Boiko, and Oleksandr Vilkul – will choose Zelensky over Poroshenko in the second round. If Zelensky does become Ukraine’s sixth post-Soviet head of state, this need not be a disaster for the country many have predicted.

Zelensky’s rise

A Zelensky presidency would be a historical aberration. In 2014 former boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko became mayor of Kyiv. And other outsiders have been elected to Ukraine’s parliament and appointed to ministerial posts before. But Zelensky is the only political novice to have come so close to occupying Ukraine’s highest public office.

In times of war, Ukraine may not have the luxury of political experimentation and governmental dilettantism

The obvious explanation for his rise lies in Ukrainians’ deep sense of disappointment in their governing class. After almost 30 years of electing to the presidency either relatively pro-Russian or officially pro-Western candidates from the economic and political elite, Ukraine remains one of the poorest nations in Europe. Of course, many of the country’s recent socio-economic problems are the result of Russia’s ruthless hybrid war against it, annexation of Crimea, and occupation of much of Donbas. Yet, in Ukrainian popular perception, Ukraine’s slow recovery from the disasters that have befallen it since 2014 is also due to the various failures as reformers and statesmen (few women occupy important governmental positions) of Poroshenko and his associates.

Indeed, there are various causes of Ukrainians’ fundamental disappointment with their established leaders that have little to do with Russia’s subversion and occupation of Ukraine – particularly those related to systemic corruption. Against this background, a successful showman with no visible links to the old political class has a striking appeal as a presidential candidate.

A different kind of populist

Zelensky’s relative popularity is somewhat dissimilar to that of controversial Western leaders such as US President Donald Trump or Beppe Grillo, co-founder of Italy’s Five Star Movement. Given Ukrainians’ negative experiences with Poroshenko and comparable presidents in the last 30 years, they would be reaffirming a dysfunctional status quo if they re-elected the incumbent. A vote for Zelensky would hardly be an abandonment of leaders with high standards of self-organisation, industriousness, professionalism, or even common decency.

Many patriotic Ukrainian intellectuals deride their compatriots’ support for Zelensky as stupid and even dangerous. But their country’s last five presidents, all of whom made their careers within the old system, have turned out to be – for various reasons – fundamentally wrong for the job. Against this background, it is not entirely irrational for Ukrainians to try something else.

This context does not diminish the enormous perils involved in making a political outsider Ukraine’s head of state. There are especially high risks in Zelensky’s manifest lack of both relevant administrative experience and an adequate team of assistants and advisers. In times of war, Ukraine may not have the luxury of political experimentation and governmental dilettantism. Nonetheless, during the 2004 Orange Revolution and 2013-2014 Euromaidan Revolution, Ukrainian activists, politicians, and intellectuals showed themselves to be surprisingly good in improvisation. This quality may come in handy now.

Strategic thinking and long-term planning may not be among the Ukrainian elite’s supreme strengths. But, during political transitions, Ukrainian civil society has proven able to mobilise and intrude deeply into political affairs in relatively peaceful, orderly, and democratic ways. This could be seen in the country’s two spectacular uprisings of the last 15 years, which diminished the neo-Soviet insulation of Ukrainian high politics.

There is reason to hope that Zelensky’s rise will lead to more interaction between Ukraine’s civil society and political system, strengthening the relationship between the two. His dearth of political connections should make it easier for civil society to influence the formation of his cabinet and his decision-making. Such interplay between the presidential administration and civil society could mitigate the risks of Zelensky’s lack of experience.

In any case, Ukraine’s governance system leaves considerable power in the hands of its parliamentary majority, bureaucratic apparatus, and prime minister’s office. Poroshenko’s skill as a political wheeler-dealer partially compensated for the constitutional separation of powers between parliament and president. But, after Ukraine’s parliamentary and presidential elections this year, the balance of power will probably shift in favour of parliament.

This could confine the president to his constitutionally mandated responsibilities: setting foreign, security, judicial, and defence policy. Aside from having a law degree and some knowledge of the English language, Zelensky is ill-prepared for this role. Yet, he can appoint competent ministers and bureaucrats with relevant education and experience in these fields. Ideally, he will be modest enough to listen to their advice.

Andreas Umland is senior non-resident fellow at the Center for European Security at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, principal researcher at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv, and general editor of the ibidem­-Verlag book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” and “Ukrainian Voices”, both distributed by Columbia University Press.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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