by Max Levites and Jason C. Moyer
On April 21st, Ukraine elected in a landslide victory Volodymyr Zelensky as their next president with 73.2% of the vote. A comedian with no political experience other than playing a President on TV, Zelensky barely campaigned, held very few interviews, and did not voice clear policies on how he would tackle the many challenges Ukraine faces, instead riding a wave of massive dissatisfaction with the Presidency of Petro Poroshenko and continued corruption in Ukrainian politics to victory.
There’s virtually no precedent for having a political outsider winning the presidency of a country that lies on a major geopolitical fault line in Eastern Europe. Few know what to expect from his tenure. While he expressed support for Ukrainian membership in NATO and the European Union, alongside a general desire to regain Ukrainian territory lost to Russia, what few campaign promises he made were vague and extremely light on policy. His victory, however, tells us a lot about where Ukrainian voters want the country to go. There are three important takeaways from this election:
A Win for Democracy
Despite foreign and domestic attempts at meddling, vote buying, and disinformation campaigns, the Presidential election in Ukraine was ultimately deemed free by international monitors. In a country at war where corruption is rampant, this is a major accomplishment, and for all of Ukraine’s many problems, its citizens, at least, had the chance to make their voices heard at the polling booth. This leads us to our second takeaway:
Ukrainians Reject the Status Quo
The old adage about “the devil you know” holds little water these days. The electoral successes of Donald Trump and Brexit have shown us that voters, fed up with the status quo, are willing to leap into the unknown rather than continue with business as usual. While the parallels with those historic votes end there, the Ukrainian election shows that even with a war going on, voters still preferred a political unknown rather than another five years of perceived corruption and lack of reform. Zelensky, in many ways, ran as a blank slate onto which voters could project not only their hope for change but their rejection of the Ukrainian political class. His decision to hold few interviews allowed voters to spend more time imagining his policies, rather than giving them a clear idea of where he would take the country. Many likely believe that he will be the real-life version of the character he plays on TV, the incorruptible everyman reformer Vasyl Holoborodko, despite only brief overtures to reform and few concrete policy ideas.
Furthermore, the political elites that hold power in Ukraine are nervous about Zelensky’s upset to the system – that’s a good thing. It’s clear that change is here, although it’s one thing to say reforms will follow and a very different task to actually implement them, as Poroshenko, who campaigned on a staunch platform promising reform, quickly realized when he assumed office.
Unity Prevails, Nationalism Fails
While Zelensky’s campaign was light on substance, he did have one message that clearly resonated with voters. While Poroshenko’s campaign targeted voters in western Ukraine on the openly nationalist slogan of “Army, Language, Faith”, Zelensky, a Jewish Russian-speaker from the eastern part of the country, has championed national unity while striking a blow to the history of anti-Semitism that has plagued Ukraine and is on the rise across Europe. While buoyed by support from the Russian-speaking east, Zelensky still managed to build a wide coalition and won majorities in 24 out of 25 regions across the country, suggesting that voters reject divisions among ethno-linguistic lines. The very fact that someone of Zelensky’s background won the Presidency is proof enough that voters believe that what it means to be “Ukrainian” is based on values, not background.
Like his predecessor, Zelensky inherits a laundry list of reforms and will face staunch opposition from oligarchs and the political elite. He will have to juggle Ukraine’s relationship with Russia while delivering on key reforms to stamp out corruption and Russian influence. Many of his supporters will want to see Ukraine move towards NATO membership and EU accession, both of which would anger Russia and possibly exacerbate the war in the country’s east. Zelensky’s success will also depend on whether he can secure a majority in the Rada in the parliamentary elections later this year. If he fails to do so, his Presidency will effectively be over before it begins. But with a parliamentary majority and a host of capable advisors at his back, there may be hope yet that this election will mark a positive turning point for Ukraine.
The views expressed in this blog are solely its author’s, and do not necessarily reflect official endorsement or position by the Transatlantic Leadership Network.