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The Screenplay of Ukrainian Elections: How (Another) Comedian Became President

On Tuesday 24th April, the blockbuster “The Avengers: Endgame” aired in the Netherlands, writing the last chapter of the saga and giving a final, incredible adventure to the most famous Marvel superheroes: Captain America, Iron Man, the Black Widow, Spiderman and many others.

The question here might be blatantly rhetorical, but would you ever call Robert Downey Jr. (the actor who plays Iron Man in the movies) and ask him to support the development of military technology in your country? Probably not, as you would perceive its actions and behaviour in the Marvel series as strictly limited to the black letter of his screenplay.

There is a time and place, however, in which the divide between reality and fantasy, between the shining TV screen and the concrete daily life, suddenly crumbled, letting the one overcoming the other in a fascinating and somehow wary fashion: it’s Kiev, Ukraine, on Sunday 21st April.

A Comedian-turned-President

These first 4 months of 2019, indeed, witnessed the political campaign for the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Elections, officially started on the 31st December 2018. The peculiarity of this campaign, however, lies in the very protagonist of these months: its winner and new president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. At only 41, he was able to completely dominate the elections, both in the first and second round, and defeat the two most important candidates, former president Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Timoshenko.

Against these two veterans of national and international politics, Zelensky was an astonishing outsider, especially if you look at his CV: as a matter of fact, not only is he lacking any political background, but he is also (and foremost) well known in Ukraine and Russia for his TV shows and comedies. In these last four years, indeed, he became extremely famous for “Servant of the People”, a TV show hosted by the biggest Ukrainian TV channel 1+1, in which he plays the role of a teacher who, tired of the corruption and the political establishment, rants against the political situation in Ukraine. The speech goes viral and he ends up being involuntarily elected as new President.

During the campaign in real life, “Servant of the People” was indeed chosen as the name of his new, unpredictable political party. Zelensky did not attend several debates, but instead made advantage of his popularity by conducting his campaign through stand-up comedy performances and self-centred TV appearances.

What personally and primarily astonishes me of his unbelievable success is, among other features, his carelessness about content and ideas. During the few interviews he allowed and especially after his victory in the second round of votes (beating Poroshenko with over 72% of the votes), he repeatedly calls himself “a normal person who will finally eradicate corruption and bring a change to Ukrainian politics”. He is perfectly aware of his lack of knowledge about fine political strategies, as his vague and almost absent political programme demonstrate. In one of the most recent interviews, he even stated that since in his campaign there were no promises, “there will be no disappointment either”.

Anyone but Poroshenko

On a second point, the reaction of the electorate and the amazement of Ukrainians with regard to Zelensky, who with his smile and affability perfectly symbolises the dissatisfaction of the poorest country in Europe, is equally interesting. In an interview, a young supporter stated that although she does not know whether the new President will be as appealing as his character in “Servant of the People”, “the hope is already enough to vote for him”.

The landslide victory of such a personality in a country like Ukraine, constantly shaken by economic struggles and hanging in the balance of a military conflict with its biggest and most prominent neighbour, Russia, is undoubtedly food for thought. Notwithstanding the number of monthly victims in the Eastern war, and the need for stability and growth, the latter chased by former President Poroshenko through a massive project of accession to the European Union, Ukrainian citizens bought the image of a TV character. Without hesitation, they promoted it as a beacon of hope, putting the actor on the real stage of politics, where the curtains can never be pulled back. We have already witnessed the power of artificial promises and slogans in 2016, with Brexit and the US presidential race, as well as in 2018, with the rise of Salvini and its right-wing party “the League” in Italy and Bolsonaro in Brasil.

The power of communication in the post-truth era seemed to have established a sort of pattern, in which social networks and emotional speeches were enough to drive the anger of the people and let outsiders take control of key-post in the global political scene. Here, however, the reality breaks the pattern once more: In a moment of unrest and political change such as the contemporary decade, you may not even need to make use of misleading content in order to run a country. Exactly like Robert Downey Jr, it is sufficient to wear a shiny and colourful armour and have a well-written screenplay. However, only time will tell whether the show will have a happy ending or, instead, will be a disastrous flop.

Samantha Scarpa has studied IR and EU Law, and writes for the MD.

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