What Ukraine’s comedian presidential candidate can tell us about the future of post-truth politics

Analysis. Volodymyr Zelensky is offering an experiment in on-demand, virtual politics that could be replicated elsewhere

Oliver Carroll
Thursday 28 March 2019 18:37 GMT
Volodymyr Zelensky’s onscreen alter-ego Vasily Goloborodko
Volodymyr Zelensky’s onscreen alter-ego Vasily Goloborodko

On Wednesday evening, tens of millions of Ukrainians tuned in to catch a glimpse of their political future.

The premiere of the third series of comedy drama Servant of the People offered some immediately recognisable faces.

There was “Dmitry Surikov”, a cynical, scheming milk-baron president (read: Ukraine’s chocolate-baron president).

There was “Jeanne d’Borisenko”, a manipulative operator worried that she might be runninrg out of time to become presidient (read: Ukraine’s own Jeanne d’Arc, Yulia Tymoshenko, trying for the third time to become president).

And there was “Vasily Goloborodko”, teacher-turned-president and man of the people, played by none other than comedian and real-life presidential frontrunner Volodymyr Zelensky.

The hints were far from subtle.

The show shows a president thrown into jail – a nod to a joke made by Mr Zelensky last month that Petro Poroshenko was only running for a second term “to avoid getting a first [prison] term.”

Then, Jeanne d’Borisenko (Tymoshenko) makes it to the presidency on the back of promising everything to everyone. (“If I said I’ll do it, I’ll do it” is her catchphrase, never fulfilled.)

Alas, D’Borisenko falls out with the oligarchs who control her, and she is pushed out of office after 50 days.

The nation is bankrupted and a Maidan revolution awaits.

By the time our hero Goloborodko is released from jail, the country has been split into 28 independent states. Ukraine is limited to the city bounds of Kiev. And even the suburbs of Troyeshchina have broken off to form their own splinter state.

At a minimum, it was a master class in trolling. But there seemed to be much more to Mr Zelensky’s latest television offering than just jokes.

Blurring political reality with dramatic fiction, it offered a new blueprint about how to engage with and influence voters in the Trumpian, post-truth world.

The candidacy of Mr Zelensky is far from the first time a showman has used their popularity and face recognition to enter politics.

From the get-go, international media have connected the obvious dots between Mr Zelensky and Donald Trump. After all, both men rose on a wave of disillusionment and as anti-politics politicians.

Mr Zelensky, on his part, prefers to talk about Ronald Reagan.

But his candidacy goes much further into the postmodern than either of the American showmen. Arguably more than any presidential candidate in history, it has been impossible to set man apart from mask, character from candidate, and voter from television viewer.

His team, for example, have derided the idea of a traditional election campaign, preferring instead to hold free “concerts”.

There has been precious little in the way of policy discussion. The comedian is certainly not the only candidate to limit media engagement. The other two frontrunners have been even less willing to talk to independent journalists. But without a significant political history behind him, you have to work very hard to understand what Zelensky the candidate really stands for.

And the merging of man and mask has also allowed the candidate to evade responsibility for what he has said.

Jeanne D’Borisenko, a character that closely resembles Mr Zelensky’s fellow candidate Yulia Tymoshenko

Mr Zelensky’s strategist Dmitry Razumkov, for example, was at pains to distance his candidate from the Poroshenko “two-terms” joke. That, he told The Independent, was a “joke said in character”. The president Zelensky would not even joke about such things.

But like the 24 minds of Billy Milligan, it is never clear where character Goloborodko ends and the candidate Zelensky begins.

You can only imagine what Mr Trump would have done to be able to present a pick-and-mix vision of the future on prime time TV, to show himself to the nation as a national saviour, and in direct juxtaposition to a group of pathetic, corrupt and dishonest opponents.

It isn’t, of course, enough to simply develop new levers of manipulation. The brilliance of Mr Zelensky’s campaign – and what, incidentally distinguishes it from Mr Trump – is that his candidate character is fundamentally a good guy, a unifier, and with moderate positions. In Ukraine’s polarised, militarised media space, the moderate ground generally isn’t well catered for, and Mr Zelensky-Goloborodko does much to fill that gap.

So the president character is an ordinary guy fighting against corruption. He is for the idea of Ukraine having two languages, but Ukrainian remaining the state language. He is for Russians but against Putin. He is for paying pensions to the impoverished pensioners left behind in the conflict zones of eastern Ukraine.

And he takes an eminently reasonable stance on Crimea, admitting the obvious: that it won’t be returned to Ukraine while Vladimir Putin remains in power.

“Mr Zelensky isn’t calling Mexicans awful things, and he isn’t talking about building walls,” says the journalist and editor Natalya Gumenyuk.

This, she adds, is what makes it a difficult choice for democratically minded Ukrainians who understand not everything is real.

Volodymyr Zelensky’s comedy drama depicts a cynical, scheming milk-baron president clearly resembling Ukraine’s chocolate-baron president Petro Poroshenko

“We all see the deception, and wonder about his relationship with the trickster oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky,” she says. “But we also wonder whether the sensible positions of a virtual president might actually make the reality more palatable.”

On Sunday, Mr Zelensky will offer his various selves to the Ukrainian electorate in what promises to be the least predictable elections of a generation.

On the one hand, the vote will be a test of Ukraine’s post-Maidan history: whether voters are happy with Mr Poroshenko’s record; angry about rising utility prices; or worried about who will best defend the country.

But it also promises to be a battle between two systems of voter manipulation, one old and one new.

If local media is to be believed, the defending president’s team has reverted to many of the old-school tricks: going heavy on militaristic threats; election alliances with regional godfathers; pension bungs on the eve of elections; and looking to limit turnout among those less likely to vote the right way – according to Mr Zelensky’s team, these include threats of military conscription officers at polling booths to limit the youth vote.

One of the very last polls published before the election suggested the president’s tactics have enjoyed some success. According to these figures, Mr Poroshenko is in line for a strong second place finish behind Mr Zelensky, 22.1 per cent compared to 24.1 per cent. This is a major and largely unexpected uptick in his numbers,

It remains to be seen whether the strong finish can be converted into eventual victory. If it isn’t, and instead Mr Zelensky becomes president, it may well be that the election is writing a new page not only in Ukrainian but world history.

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