Valentyn Ogirenko / REUTERS Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy reacts following the announcement of the first exit poll at his campaign headquarters in Kiev, April 2019

Why a Comedian Won Ukraine’s Presidency in a Landslide

Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s Victory Is the Punchline to Decades of Misrule

The global wave of protest populism that began with Brexit and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump reached new heights in Ukraine this weekend. A comedian outsider whose campaign served as an echo chamber for public discontent in Europe’s most consistently corrupt nation has won a landslide victory in the presidential race. Ukraine’s new president-elect, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is in many ways the ideal poster boy for the antiestablishment trend currently sweeping world politics. A media-savvy TV celebrity who has never previously held political office, he has made a virtue of his inexperience by posing as an everyman candidate untainted by the rot within the system. Zelenskiy’s stunning success—he won the Ukrainian presidency by a record margin and triumphed in all but one of the country’s 24 administrative regions—amounted to a vote of no confidence in the entire Ukrainian political class. Whereas other populists have exploited hot-button issues or courted support among overlooked demographics, Zelenskiy was able to galvanize an entire nation to back him in what was surely one of the biggest protest votes ever seen.

VIRTUAL CANDIDATE

What was Zelenskiy’s secret? He ran for president as a virtual candidate, eschewing traditional rallies, political talk shows, and press interviews in favor of comedy concerts, slick social media messaging, and carefully curated appearances on friendly channels. His most original and effective campaign platform was undoubtedly the hit TV series Servant of the People, in which he stars as an accidental president who crusades against corruption.

Launched in 2015, the show served as the perfect vehicle for a would-be protest candidate, allowing its star to pose as an honest man in a world of political sin. The fictional Ukraine depicted in Servant of the People is a grotesque parody of an already imperfect reality. A typical episode of the show conveys the moral bankruptcy of the country’s democratic institutions while reinforcing the morbid brand of political cynicism favored by many, if not most, Ukrainians. According to a

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