Ukraine’s comedian president will face serious challenges
On Monday morning Ukrainians will wake up to a President who comes from outside the traditional political elite that has led this country of more than 40 million people since independence in 1991.
Volodymyr Zelensky, a television comic they voted into the president’s office on Sunday in an apparent landslide — he garnered about three times as many votes as his opponent, according to early projections — will inherit a massive to-do list for a country that is in the midst of a simmering conflict with Russia, has fallen to become one of the poorest countries in Europe, and confronts perceptions of corruption.
As such, Zelensky will likely enjoy an extremely short honeymoon in which to prove that he can ably translate his comedic, on-air persona into a living, breathing president with substantial decision-making powers over foreign affairs, defense, intelligence, and in appointing the nation’s top prosecutor.
Proving himself capable to skeptical opponents and the international community will be crucial. Well before Sunday’s second round of voting, Zelensky’s opponent, incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, was painting the 41-year-old self-made entertainment businessman as weak on Russia, inexperienced, and as a puppet of the billionaire oligarch who owns the TV channel that airs Zelensky’s show.
Figuring out what Zelensky actually stands for in domestic matters isn’t easy — and no less so on foreign matters, including future dealings with Russia. The feared Russian interference and manipulation in the elections appears to have been present, but it didn’t make quite as big a splash as some had worried. It could be that the Kremlin opted to just sit back and watch as Ukrainians removed Poroshenko, a man Russia may feel they can no longer do business with.
To be sure, one of the first items on the new President’s “to do” list will be to sort out the simmering conflict with Russia in the east of Ukraine and the return of 24 sailors seized by Russia in the Kerch Strait area in November. If we are to believe a key Russian figure in Ukraine, Viktor Medvedchuk, Moscow is in a deal-making mood and might be prepared to return the seized lands in the Donbas with the goal of getting relief from Western sanctions imposed after Russia’s 2014 incursion.
However, this is an area where the Zelensky team will have to tread carefully in order to avoid being branded as inexperienced and naïve — or at the worst as traitors — by patriotic Ukrainians who may not like negotiations with Russia. The conflict has cost upwards of 13,000 lives, displaced more than 1.5 million, and weighed on Ukraine’s economy. France, where Zelensky traveled recently to meet with President Emmanuel Macron, will be in a position to help guide the new leader as a member of the four-party Normandy Format that has been trying to broker peace in eastern Ukraine.
Sviatoslav Yurash, a senior member of the Zelensky team, told me a main thrust on the home front will be “people power” type actions, such as changing the ways governors are chosen and “giving more say to everyday people.” A major move, he added, would be stripping the president, judges and members of parliament of immunity from prosecution, which they enjoy to varying degrees.
One thing is for sure: Zelensky will have to start negotiating immediately with rowdy and disparate parliamentary factions to gain support for legislation that will have a positive impact. But that won’t be easy, observers say.
“For Zelensky, winning was the easy part. The hard part will be building a coalition of parties in the parliament to help him deliver or his administration will not succeed. Forget the claims that he’s a clown and knows nothing. He likely won’t be able to do much in the next six months because every political party is positioning itself for the October parliamentary elections and will want to prevent Zelensky and his party from any real legislative success. Expect gridlock and massive fighting in the Ukrainian parliament in the next sixth months if the governing coalition holds,” Melinda Haring, editor of the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert blog and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told me.
At least Ukrainian voters got some last-minute exposure to Zelensky’s style when he unveiled his inner circle two days before the election, and in a carnival-like spectacle stadium debate, where he displayed a surprisingly savvy debating style.
Zelensky’s picks for his team, which were unveiled live on Thursday on the same channel which broadcasts his comedy series, showed that, out of a team of 20, there were only four women, the youngest was 26 and the oldest 62, and most were relatively unknown. But in the crucial area of boosting the Ukrainian economy, the inclusion of technocrats such as former finance minister Oleksandr Danyliuk, former economic development and trade minister Aivaras Abromavicius, and lawmaker and anti-corruption campaigner Sergii Leshchenko is a positive move.
As spectacular as it was, by Election Day, when this overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian nation also observed Palm Sunday, Zelensky’s victory felt inevitable.
Signs that Poroshenko would head for defeat were apparent well beforehand: he trailed Zelensky by 14 percentage points in the first round.
Poroshenko and his team also showed a stubborn tone deafness throughout both campaigns, failing to speak to the bread and butter issues that most Ukrainians care about, including tackling rampant corruption, stemming a brain drain, raising the standard of living and pensions. Facing the nation with a patriotic platform of “army, language and faith” failed to resonate with younger voters, but an expected crucial pivot to “it’s the economy, stupid” never materialized.
Zelensky has pledged to be a one-term president. If he lives up to that promise, now that he’s busted through the once-exclusive doors, could it be that in five years another fresh face becomes Ukraine’s seventh president?