Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 19 October 2019

Ukraine's election is no laughing matter

The victory of comedy actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy raises concerns at a tense moment for the country

Ukrainian actor Volodymyr Zelensky won the presidency on Sunday with more than 70 per cent of the vote. Tatyana Zenkovich / EPA
Ukrainian actor Volodymyr Zelensky won the presidency on Sunday with more than 70 per cent of the vote. Tatyana Zenkovich / EPA

As disillusionment with establishment politics has grown around the world, a number of nations have made surprising electoral decisions. In Italy, the Five Star Movement, led by the comedian Beppe Grillo, now forms part of a coalition government, along with the populist right-wing Lega party. Across the Atlantic, Donald Trump, star of the reality TV show The Apprentice, occupies the Oval Office. On Sunday, Ukraine took this trend to new heights, when actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy – star of a hugely popular TV show about a schoolteacher who accidentally becomes president – won Ukraine’s presidential election by a landslide. His victory is testament to a functioning democracy, where the people’s choice is heeded, however peculiar that choice may be. But whether Mr Zelenskiy can address the many challenges facing Ukraine and its citizens remains to be seen.

The entertainer owes his triumph over incumbent Petro Poroshenko to widespread disillusionment with Ukraine’s opaque political establishment. Clearly, by electing Mr Zelenskiy, the people of Ukraine have charted a new course. In a scrappy televised debate last Friday, Mr Zelenskiy vowed to “break the system”. Turning to Mr Poroshenko, he said: “I’m a judgment on you … I’m the result of your mistakes.” Mr Zelenskiy is viewed as a fresh face and has vowed to tackle corruption and improve living standards. Perhaps of equal importance, he makes people laugh. But his victory, with more than 70 per cent of the vote, raises concerns at a tense moment for Ukraine. A complete political novice, Mr Zelenskiy must confront powerful oligarchs and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. How a man whose campaign lacked substance and highlighted no real policies will fare against Russian president Vladimir Putin is anyone’s guess. There are also concerns about Mr Zelenskiy’s own ties to the oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, owner of the channel that screens Mr Zelenskiy’s show and a rival of Mr Poroshenko.

Since a deep recession in 2014-15, Ukraine’s economy has experienced moderate growth. Mr Poroshenko was praised for a series of structural reforms, while he has responded deftly to Russian incursions in eastern Ukraine, avoiding an unwinnable war. And yet, Ukrainians have jettisoned him in favour of a complete outsider. The international community must now support Mr Zelenskiy as best it can. For this strategically important nation, trapped between Russia and the West, the stakes are high.

Updated: April 22, 2019 06:11 PM

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