Will a Comic Actor Become Ukraine’s Next President?

Why Volodymyr Zelenskiy Won the First Round of Elections

Ukrainian comic actor and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy delivers a speech following the announcement of the first exit poll in a presidential election at his campaign headquarters in Kiev, March 2019 Valentyn Ogirenko / REUTERS

On March 31, Ukrainians went to the polls to elect a new president. Front-runner Volodymyr Zelenskiy, an inexperienced 41-year-old comic television actor, came out on top, with even higher numbers than predicted. The results give the comedian 30 percent of the vote. Incumbent President Petro Poroshenko came in second with just under 16 percent. Because no candidate crossed the 50 percent threshold, Zelenskiy and Poroshenko will face off in a second-round runoff on April 21.

All of this was to be expected. Zelenskiy had been leading in the polls for two months, and Ukrainian presidential incumbents don’t enjoy an advantage as they do in other systems. Since gaining independence in 1991, Ukrainians have reelected only one president.

The vote was a referendum on Poroshenko, who was elected on an anti-graft platform following the 2013–14 Euromaidan protests that resulted in the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych. Ukrainians have told pollsters they are frustrated with the country’s lack of progress over the last five years. People’s everyday lives haven’t gotten better, none of the prominent crooked officials from the pre-Euromaidan era were imprisoned, and the war with Russian-led separatists in the country’s east remains at a stalemate. The war, corruption, and the economy were the top issues for voters.

Poroshenko gets solid marks as a wartime president, but the economy is barely growing. At the beginning of his presidency, the government moved against graft, mainly in the gas sector, but the fight stalled. Efforts to reform the judiciary by rebooting the Supreme Court failed. Investors weren’t fooled by Poroshenko’s claims of progress, and foreign direct investment has remained flat. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Ukraine has become the poorest country in Europe as measured by GDP per capita, even poorer than Moldova. At least two million Ukrainians have moved to Europe to look for work. The finance minister has estimated that at its current rate of growth, Ukraine’s economy will take 50 years to catch up to Poland’s.


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