Europe Politics

A comedian is hot favorite to be Ukraine's next president - so what are his policies?

Key Points
  • A comedian-turned-politician is a strong favorite to win Ukraine's presidential election run-off vote this coming Sunday.
  • He has been criticized for his lack of political experience and policies.
  • That doesn't seem to have deterred voters so far with Zelensky winning the most votes in the first round of the election.
Ukrainian presidential candidate, Volodymyr Zelensky seen surrounded by the media during the blood test for the content in the body of alcohol and drugs.
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A comedian-turned-politician is a strong favorite to win Ukraine's presidential election run-off vote this coming Sunday, despite little being known about his political policies and plans.

That doesn't seem to have deterred voters so far with Volodymyr Zelensky winning the most votes (30.2%) in the first round of the election compared to his rival, veteran politician and incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, who got 16% of the vote.

One poll of just over 2,000 Ukrainians by the Kiev-based International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), published Tuesday, said that 48.4% support Zelensky and 17% back Poroshenko while 17.9% remain undecided. Others intended to spoil their ballot paper, didn't intend to vote or refused to name their favorite.

Zelenksy might be a political novice but he's no stranger to the public, having played the role of an ordinary guy that becomes Ukrainian president in a hit TV show called "Servant of the People."

He polls highly in terms of positive public perception, the KIIS survey showed, with 53.7% of respondents holding a positive attitude towards him, compared to 18.1% for Poroshenko.

After turning to politics in the real world, Zelensky (like his TV character) posited himself as an anti-graft candidate fighting for change in a country dogged by corruption and economic instability.

But critics say that we know little else about his plans for Ukraine if, as expected, he wins the run-off vote on April 21.

What does 'Ze' actually say?

With his background in comedy and acting, Zelensky knows how to woo an audience and the 41-year old has certainly used social media to good effect in his election campaigning. This has enabled him to attract young voters who are disaffected with the political establishment in Ukraine.

Older voters too are fed up at a lack of progress on tackling corruption and oligarchies too, analysts note, and they have also viewed Zelensky as a breath of fresh air.

Introducing himself on his website, Zelensky (or 'Ze' as he is known) says his goal is to "make people happier in Ukraine. I want to see joyful faces around." A pre-election program on his website, while lacking details, signals the moves he could make in power.

Volodymyr Zelensky candidate for the post of President of Ukraine during the concert program of the studio 'Kvartal 95'.
Pacific Press | LightRocket | Getty Images

Suggesting a digital push, Zelensky's program states that he wants to see a Ukraine "where you can open an business in an hour, get a passport in 15 minutes, and vote in elections - in one second, on the Internet."

Without offering much detail, the comedian also alludes to wanting to boost employment, provide housing for young families, tackle corruption and nepotism, and improve wages and pensions.

His first task as president would be to empower the people through referendums "and other forms of direct democracy," he notes, and says that the state should exist for Man, "not Man for the state."

He says he wants to improve justice and equality in Ukraine and has gone so far as to say that he wants to remove parliamentary immunity from prosecution and would reform the judicial system.

Change of scenery

Despite critics saying that Zelensky's plans are not that well detailed and that implementation could prove tricky, it has been noted that he has surrounded himself with experienced advisers. Former finance and economy ministers have joined his team, for example, and are likely to take ministerial posts once again if he wins.

On Tuesday, former Finance Minister Oleksandr Danyliuk (who could be in the running for foreign minister) said that if Zelensky wins the election, his team will not include officials or ministers from the current administration.

Viktor Andrusiv, executive director of the Ukrainian Institute for the Future based in Kiev, said Zelensky's program was being criticized somewhat unfairly.

"He has collected top experts, economists and reformers around him and I would say his program looks quite good," Andrusiv told CNBC Wednesday.

"There are a lot of liberal approaches to the economy and business as well as the pledge to abolish immunity for deputies (members of parliament) — a lot of oligarchs use membership of parliament as a way to avoid prosecution so this would change if he cancels this."

On Russia?

Ukraine is a country sandwiched between Russia and Europe and harbors aspirations to join the EU and NATO — ambitions that have affronted its powerful neighbour Russia.

Relations hit a new low in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and supported a pro-Russian uprising in east Ukraine, with the conflict in Donbass (where there are two self-styled republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, held by pro-Russian separatists) unresolved.

The United Nations estimates that 13,000 people have been killed, and 30,000 injured, in Donbass since 2014.

People hold portraits as they take part in a rally in memory of the victims of the Donbass military conflict.
Valentin Sprinchak | TASS | Getty Images

Zelensky has said he favors dialogue with Russia and that "we must win peace for Ukraine" but said he would seek international support for Ukraine to see the return of "temporarily occupied territories and forcing the aggressor to reimburse the damage. The presentation of national interests and territories cannot be the subject of any negotiations."

On the economy?

Ukraine's conflict with Russia couldn't have come at a worse time and in 2014, when the country was in recession and its financial sector under significant stress the country was forced to ask the International Monetary Fund for financial aid.

The Fund granted a $17.5 billion aid package in 2015 but it had strict conditions attached, including implementing a reform program designed to improve financial stability, reduce a fiscal deficit, eliminate losses in the energy sector, tackle corruption and improve governance.

The aid program did not go altogether smoothly with the IMF delaying the release of aid in early 2017 due to the slow pace of reforms — increasing household gas prices being one of the main bones of contention.

Ukraine received a further $3.9 billion IMF credit line in December 2018 to get it through a potentially turbulent political year with the presidential election and parliamentary elections due in October this year.

Otilia Dhand, senior vice president at Teneo Intelligence, told CNBC Wednesday that what Ukrainians care about when it comes to the economy differs to what investors and institutions like the IMF want to see.

Kiev, Ukraine.
Getty Images

"There is only a small part (of Zelensky's program) that deals with the economy but that's not what the average man on the street cares about…It's formulated as an economy for citizens but that doesn't answer questions that institutions and investors would be asking about Ukraine," she noted.

"That's the problem. The program appeals to citizens, but the ones that are keeping Ukraine financially stable are institutions and markets," Dhand said, noting that questions are now being asked over what Zelensky really intends to do if, and when, he's in office.

"Is he really able to implement any of his ideas without political clout? The worst issue for international markets about a candidate without any political experience is how is he going to form a majority in parliament and steer the economy through tough adjustments – like an increase in gas prices?"