Ukraine votes on Sunday

Zelensky: Ukrainian clown or political wonder boy?

The Jewish TV star has capitalized on citizens’ despair over mainstream politics, war with Kremlin-backed rebels, poverty and corruption

Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky holds his ballot at a polling station during Ukraine's presidential election in Kiev on March 31, 2019. (Genya Savilov/AFP)
Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky holds his ballot at a polling station during Ukraine's presidential election in Kiev on March 31, 2019. (Genya Savilov/AFP)

KIEV, Ukraine (AFP) — Volodymyr Zelensky, a 41-year-old politically inexperienced comedian who is on track to become Ukraine’s next president, stirs strong feelings.

Supporters say he is the fresh face the country needs to clean up Ukrainian politics after a 2014 uprising ousted a Kremlin-backed regime.

Critics fear that a Zelensky presidency could throw the country into turmoil.

Ahead of Sunday’s elections, here are four key questions about Zelensky’s extraordinary rise to political prominence:

Why is he so popular?

Zelensky — whose schoolteacher character in “Servant of the People” becomes president after an expletive-laden tirade goes viral — channels the protest votes.

The TV star has capitalized on Ukrainians’ despair over mainstream politics, war with Kremlin-backed rebels, poverty and corruption.

“Essentially people are voting against [President Petro] Poroshenko and not for Zelensky,” said Oleksandr Paskhaver, a Ukrainian economist and former adviser to the president.

Poroshenko’s backers credit him with rebuilding the nation’s army, securing an Orthodox Church independent of Russia and winning visa-free travel to Europe.

But critics say the 53-year-old has done too little to tackle graft, improve living standards or uphold the rule of law.

Anti-corruption campaigners and other activists regularly suffer attacks.

Kateryna Gandzyuk, a 33-year-old anti-corruption activist, died last November, a few months after she had about a liter of acid poured on her by several attackers.

Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy is photographed on the set of a movie, in Kiev, Ukraine, Wednesday, February 6, 2019. (AP/Efrem Lukatsky)

What do Ukrainians see in him?

Observers say that Zelensky, a Russian-speaking comedian of Jewish descent who hails from the industrial city of Krivy Rig, is living proof that pretty much anyone can become president.

Volodymyr Fesenko, director of Kiev’s Penta think tank, said the comic’s popularity was underpinned by “a political myth created by the TV series,” adding: “This is a myth that an ordinary man can become a president.”

Zelensky, 41, has built a large social media and television presence and skillfully blurred the line between fiction and reality to win votes across the country of 45 million people.

The “Servant of the People” series — in which Zelensky plays schoolteacher turned president Vasyl Goloborodko — premiered in 2015 and is now in its third season.

His incumbent rival Poroshenko has repeatedly attempted to bring Ukrainians to their senses, saying the campaign was not a movie and the country’s commander-in-chief needs more than just an easy-going attitude and a sense of humor.

“We are not electing Goloborodko — we are electing a president of Ukraine,” Poroshenko said.

Does he have a program?

Zelensky does not have a clear program and observers say Ukrainians are pinning their hopes on a dark horse who has preferred to get his message across through social media rather than press interviews.

Pollsters say Zelensky is many things to many people and he enjoys strong support across all regions and age groups.

Ukrainian incumbent president Petro Poroshenko delivers a speech at his campaign headquarters in Kiev, after the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election, on March 31, 2019. (Sergei SUPINSKY/AFP)

“Zelensky is a mirror in which everyone sees what he wants to see,” said political analyst Anatoliy Okstysyuk.

Analysts say that he may use his outsider status to push through genuine anti-corruption reforms and uphold the rule of law.

But others warn he may merely serve as a front for controversial oligarch Igor Kolomoisky whose channel broadcasts his shows.

Political analyst Oleksandr Medvedev predicted that the next Ukrainian president will have about six to nine months before voters go sour on him.

“The voters expect radical changes to the justice system, literally within the first two months,” he said.

Will he remain popular for long?

Ukraine is a vibrant, if messy, democracy and unhappiness with authorities is the rule rather than the exception in the country, observers say.

“Being unhappy — actively unhappy — with the authorities is the norm,” said Paskhaver, the former adviser to Poroshenko.

Since Ukraine won independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 it has elected five presidents and survived two popular uprisings, in 2004 and 2014.

Some political analysts say that Zelensky might also be voted — or even forced — out of office, just like his predecessors.

“Problems for him will begin even earlier than for others because he is inexperienced,” Paskhaver said.

Medvedev added: “Within the very first month most of Zelensky’s backers will be disappointed by his steps, or his inaction, or his inability to fulfill promises, or the characters that will appear in his team.”

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