Comedian leads Ukraine Polls as Runoff Approaches

Following an unanticipated political campaign, Ukranian comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy is leading the polls to become the president of Ukraine. Zelenskiy, the 41-year-old man who has shaken up Ukrainian politics, is the star of the immensely popular television show “A Servant to Servants,” which satirizes current political events and well-known politicians. He plays the role of Vasyl Holoborodko, an ordinary teacher who becomes president after a student films his political tirade. The show is incredibly popular with over 20 million viewers, only a little less than half of the country’s entire population. Following the airing of the last season right before the election, however, Zelenskiy himself decided to follow in the footsteps of the fictional character Holoborodko and run for president.

His success has been powerful and startling, as he has received immense support from across the country. In the latest run of elections, occurring on Mar. 31, he took first place in a crowded field of 39 candidates, relegating incumbent Petro Poroshenko to second and putting ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko out of the running. The comedian is set to face incumbent Poroshenko in the coming election on Apr. 21, the result of which will decide the presidency.

The exact draw of the comedian, however, is a puzzle to political analysts across Ukraine and the world. Some attention has been given to his fluency in Russian, his native language, which is spoken in many parts of Eastern, Southern and Central Ukraine, therefore appealing to key areas. The widest draw, however, seems to come from his lack of political background. Robert Binkley, a former British ambassador to Ukraine, says “He is doing well because there is a widespread mood in Ukraine of alienation from politicians and the political class, which is not unique to Ukraine.” Indeed, the general disillusionment of the people with politicians seems to be the driving force of his campaign.

His large support base is surprising, not only for his lack of practical experience but for his rather moderate view. In the last few elections, Ukraine has swerved to support right-populist ideals. Zelenskiy, however, seems to be a relatively moderate candidate, with no clear political platform. When asked questions of policy, he often promises to rely on the support of “experienced professionals,” and remains vague about his future plans. Poroshenko, who is in a semi-public feud with Zelenskiy, has mocked this lack of a platform, saying “He dreams of a soft, submissive, gentle, giggling, inexperienced, weak, ideologically amorphous and politically uncertain president.”

Despite this evident lack of a platform, there are a few essential promises that form the crux of Zelinskiy’s campaign. The most notable of these revolve around the Russian influence and control over eastern Ukraine, which has become a central point in the Western vs Russian faceoff in Europe.  He openly seeks to reconcile with Russian supporters in eastern Ukraine and an end to Russia-Ukraine the conflict which has killed over 13,000 people since 2014. Other distinct promises include a call for a stronger military as well as forcing Russia to return Crimea and to end their “disgusting and horrible” attempts to seize land from Ukraine.

His campaign is not without controversy, however, and he and the sitting president have begun an intense feud as the second round of voting approaches. The most threatening of these to Zelenskiy seems to be accusations from the president that he is a political puppet for oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, the owner of the TV channel which airs “A Servant to Servants.” However, given his lead in the first round, earning 30% to the president’s 16%, it is unclear if the rumor will impact his wide voter base.

As he stands primed to take control of the presidency amidst a slow decrease in inflation and an escalating feud with Russia, the country watches with expectation. Zelenskiy himself seems optimistic about a new political era, saying after his vote “A new life begins. A life without corruption and without bribes. Life in a nation of dreams comes true.”

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