Less than two months out from election day on March 31, Ukraine has a new presidential race leader, comic Volodymyr Zelensky, recent opinion polls show. This must be an unpleasant surprise to both populist politician and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who had led all polls since 2016, and incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, who has been toiling for months to close the gap on her. Unlike Tymoshenko and Poroshenko, who have been in politics for more than two decades, Zelensky is a novice. But he is arguably one of the most popular local TV stars. This gives him an edge in an era of mass communications and in a country disappointed with mainstream politicians five years after the EuroMaidan uprising, which helped Kyiv to break loose from the Moscow orbit but left many of the same corrupt elites in place.
Zelensky scored 16 percent in a January 2019 poll conducted jointly by the local pollsters Socis, KIIS and Razumkov. Poroshenko was second, with 11 percent, and Tymoshenko ended in third place, with 10 percent. Zelensky’s score translated into 23 percent of those respondents who were determined to vote, as more than 26 percent expressed they were still undecided or did not reply. In a separate survey conducted that same month by another respected local pollster, Rating, Zelensky’s lead was narrower—14 percent against Tymoshenko’s 13 percent, Poroshenko’s 10 percent, and 15 percent undecided. Yury Boyko, an allegedly pro-Moscow former fuel minister, scored fourth in both polls, with support of 6 percent, according to Socis-KIIS-Razumkov and 8 percent according to Rating. Interestingly, only a month earlier Zelensky had been behind Tymoshenko and on par with Poroshenko, with 13, 9 and 9 percent respectively, in a poll conducted also by Rating, and commissioned by the International Republican Institute (Ukraine-elections.com.ua, accessed February 5).
Zelensky’s campaign was probably boosted in January by his unconventional move to congratulate the nation on New Year’s Eve. His message was carried by one of Ukraine’s most popular TV channels, 1+1, and aired ahead of President Poroshenko’s address, several minutes to midnight (YouTube, December 31, 2018). During his holiday message, Zelensky announced he would definitely run for president, although he had already been expected to since at least the middle of 2018, when he began to climb in the polls. 1+1 belongs to Ihor Kolomoysky, an oligarch who fell out with Poroshenko several years ago, when the Ukrainian president fired him as Dnipropetrovsk province governor; subsequently, in agreement with the International Monetary Fund, Poroshenko greenlighted the nationalization of Kolomoysky’s bank, Privatbank. 1+1 has been also airing Zelensky’s “Kvartal 95” comedy shows. Most recently, a minibus with number plates allegedly belonging to one of Kolomoysky’s firms was spotted accompanying Zelensky’s car (Bihus.info, January 18). Suspicions are thus rampant in the local media that Kolomoysky is backing Zelensky’s campaign—meaning that the latter man is not quite the independent candidate he is portraying himself to be.
Journalists also found that Zelensky, who is arguably no less popular in Russia than in Ukraine, possesses a network of film businesses in Russia, and that a project developed by at least one of them could be financed from the Russian budget. Although he said he stopped doing business in Russia several years ago, this allegation will surely politically harm him. After all, the Kremlin has been waging an unofficial war against Ukraine since 2014, after annexing Crimea and closely backing an armed insurgency in eastern Donbas (Radiosvoboda.org, Pravda.com.ua, January 17).
Zelensky’s charisma is stronger than his political program. To begin with, little had been known of his views before his long interview with Kyiv journalist Dmytro Gordon last December, and he sounded unconvincing and naïve. He said that, if elected president, he would serve only one term (the constitution allows two); that he would negotiate with anybody in the Kremlin just to stop the war, and after that directly ask the nation what should be agreed upon (and he is generally “crazy about referenda”); that, for military support, Kyiv should turn to countries with big Ukrainian diasporas, such as Canada; and that lower interest should be negotiated with Ukraine’s main lender, the International Monetary Fund (YouTube, December 25, 2018). After applying to register as a presidential candidate, Zelensky said he would focus on anti-corruption measures and attracting foreign investment, offering a tax amnesty, developing high-speed Internet, and promoting direct democracy though referenda. He also reiterated his wish to serve only one term (UNIAN; pravda.com.ua, January 25, 2019).
Zelensky’s strong showing in the polls is a sign of strong disillusionment with traditional political leaders. He has never participated in politics, but he played a guy-next-door character who accidentally becomes president in “Servant of the People,” a popular comedy series launched in 2015. To an ordinary voter familiar with his TV persona, Zelensky looks much closer and easier to understand than the likes of Poroshenko and Tymoshenko. Surveys show that while Tymoshenko leads in the central areas and Poroshenko is quite popular among the conservative electorate in the west, Russian speaker Zelensky is strong in the Russian-speaking areas in the east and south of Ukraine. Many of his potential voters there used to back former president Viktor Yanukovych and his disgraced Party of Regions, and some even did not vehemently oppose the Russian invasion. Now, Zelensky can draw them away from the candidates suspected of links to the Kremlin, such as Boyko.
If Zelensky loses on March 31, he could still have strong prospects of later becoming elected to the parliament. Back in 2017, Zelensky’s team registered a political party called, Servant of the People (directly referencing his TV show), which opinion polls show is likely to compete against Tymoshenko’s and Poroshenko’s factions in the parliamentary election scheduled for next autumn (Ukraine-elections.com.ua, accessed February 5). In either case, Ukraine would become the first former Soviet nation to propel a comedian to a top political position.