Europe Politics

Ukraine faces up to reality after political novice wins landslide

Key Points
  • A comedian-turned-politician has won Ukraine's presidential election with a landslide victory.
  • Pressure is now on newcomer Volodymyr Zelensky to deliver the political change he has promised.
  • The nearest Zelenksy has got to the presidential office before now was playing the role of the Ukrainian president in a hit TV show.
  • He won the election in a landslide victory.
Ukrainian comedian and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky reacts after the announcement of the first exit poll results in the second round of Ukraine's presidential election at his campaign headquarters in Kiev on April 21, 2019.
GENYA SAVILOV | AFP | Getty Images

A comedian-turned-politician has won Ukraine's presidential election with a landslide victory. But the pressure is now on newcomer Volodymyr Zelensky to deliver the political change he has promised.

The nearest Zelenksy has got to the presidential office before now was playing the role of the Ukrainian president in a hit TV show. His apparent lack of political experience in the real world didn't deter voters in the 2019 presidential election, however.

Just over 73% supported him in the run-off vote on Sunday, compared to just 24% for Petro Poroshenko, according to the Ukrainian Electoral Commission.

"Thank you to all Ukrainians who made a different choice," Zelensky told crowds upon hearing of his victory "I promise I will never let you down."

Like his TV character, Zelensky posited himself as an anti-corruption candidate fighting for change in a country dogged by graft, oligarchy and economic instability. We don't yet know who his ministers will be however (and parliament has to approve these appointments) and his critics noted that his policies were not adequately detailed.

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, analysts note, and they view Zelensky, different from the norm with his informal approach, as a breath of fresh air.

Introducing himself on his website, Zelensky (or "Ze" as he is known) said 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 specifics, also gives clues on what we could see from Zelensky now he's president-elect.

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."

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

Despite critics saying that Zelensky's plans could prove tricky, it's been noted that he has surrounded himself with experienced advisors who are now expected to take ministerial posts.

Last week, former Finance Minister Oleksandr Danyliuk (who could be in the running for the post of foreign minister) said that if Zelensky won the election, his team will not include officials or ministers from Poroshenko's administration, signaling a clear break from the past.

Zelensky has promised to break the power of oligarchs in Ukraine. But his own relationship with self-exiled, controversial oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who owns the TV channel that Zelensky's productions are broadcast on, has also come under scrutiny. For his part, Zelensky said last week that anyone who breaks the laws, including Kolomoisky, would be put behind bars.

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 neighbor Russia.

Relations hit a new low in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and supported a pro-Russian uprising in east Ukraine. The United Nations estimates that 13,000 people have been killed, and 30,000 injured, in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine since 2014.

Zelensky has said he favors dialogue with Russia and that "we must win peace for Ukraine." But he also stated he would seek international support for Ukraine to see the return of "temporarily occupied territories and forcing the aggressor to reimburse the damage."

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko embraces his wife Maryna to thanks her for her support in the Poroshenko's party headquarters in Kiev on April 21, 2019, at the end of a day of polling in the second round of national elections in which he lost to a comedian with no political experience.

There are concerns Russia could run rings round an inexperienced president, however. Even before his defeat, outgoing President Poroshenko warned that "a new inexperienced Ukrainian President could be quickly returned to Russia's orbit of influence."

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 (IMF) for financial aid.

Otilia Dhand, senior vice president at Teneo Intelligence, told CNBC last week that what Ukrainians care about when it comes to the economy differs to what investors and institutions like the IMF, which has demanded far-reaching reforms in Ukraine, want to see.

"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.

"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?"

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