“He managed to be many things to many people at the same time,” one journalist and political commentator tells me. “I’ve met him,” said one NGO official and election observer. “He’s very smart, but he’s had to assemble a team of people to help him get this far.”
We’re speaking in Ukraine, where comic actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy won the presidential runoff election this weekend in a landslide. But the journalist? He’s from Slovenia, telling me about that country’s own comedian-turned-politician Marjan Šarec, who became prime minister last fall. And the NGO official? He was actually speaking several years ago about Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales, whose meteoric rise to the top office after years as a well-known comedian has since been matched by a messy fall from grace.
41-year-old Volodymyr Zelenskiy is far from the first political neophyte to ride an anti-corruption, anti-establishment wave into his country’s highest office. And as many countries have found out, brand-new characters who stroll onto the political stage aren’t always all they’re cracked up to be.
At Zelenskiy’s crowded campaign headquarters Sunday night, there wasn’t a shred of doubt what was going to happen. Polls had estimated Zelenskiy would gain more than 70 percent of the vote and crush unpopular president Petro Poroshenko. And they were right: with almost all of the votes counted by Monday afternoon, Zelenskiy had won 73 percent of the vote, handing Poroshenko the biggest defeat in a presidential election in Ukraine’s history.
“We did this together,” Zelenskiy said on stage at his campaign headquarters as the exit poll results all but confirmed his victory. “I promise I will never let you down.”
With a campaign of vague promises, minimal interviews and a host of jokes and one-liners, Zelenskiy’s path to the presidency was laid by widespread dissatisfaction over corruption and poverty—by some measures, Ukraine is the poorest country in Europe—and, of course, the ongoing war with Russian-backed forces that has taken more than 13,000 lives in eastern Ukraine. In one of the campaign’s final and fittingly bizarre moments, a debate on a stage at the biggest soccer stadium in the country, Zelenskiy declared himself “a simple man who’s come to destroy this system,” just like the fictional president he portrays on the show “Servant of the People.”
Why would Ukrainians overwhelmingly vote for someone whose only political experience is pretending to be president on TV? Part of the answer is clear in Zelenskiy’s hometown of Kryvyi Rih, an industrial city fewer than 200 miles from the front lines, and about a seven-hour drive south of Kyiv.
“I believe we don’t have enough authentic people in our politics,” says Olga, 35, a volunteer at Zelenskiy’s local campaign office on prospekt Metalurhiv—Metallurgists’ Avenue. Zelenskiy, Olga says, “is a lively, real person who, if you run into him around town, you can take a selfie with him. This attracts people to him.”
Olga isn’t alone in her Zelenskiy fandom. Preliminary results suggest a huge majority in the new president’s hometown—almost 90 percent—voted for the local boy. During the final week, there wasn’t a single Poroshenko campaign advert to be seen in Kryvyi Rih’s city center.
In the pouring rain, a young man in his twenties agrees to stop under an umbrella to share a few thoughts about Zelenskiy. Does he have any worries about a political newbie ascending the country’s top office? “Everybody has to learn sometime,” he told me before his cellphone rang, darting off before I could get his name.
Problem is, Zelenskiy doesn’t have much time to learn on the job, as another comedian-turned-politician a few hour’s flight away has learned.
Marjan Šarec, also 41 years old, became mayor of a small town in northern Slovenia in 2010 after spending years as a comedian and actor, his most famous role being that of a simple, rural everyman. Riding Slovenians’ disappointment with corruption, financial problems, and the incumbent party, Šarec was named prime minister of a coalition government in Slovenia last September.
But Šarec’s inexperience has been showing through, says Aljaž Pengov Bitenc, a Slovenian journalist and political commentator. Like Zelenskiy, says Bitenc, Šarec remained deliberately vague during campaigns, allowing him to also be a bit of a blank slate in the voters’ minds. Once he got into office, “the moment he started taking actual positions, say, on real estate tax or pension reform,” says Bitenc, “some subsets of voters started souring on him.” In European Parliament elections coming up in May, Šarec’s party is projected to take only one of Slovenia’s eight European Parliament seats, says Bitenc. “Learning by doing might make national politics seem more accessible,” warns Bitenc, “but it can have profound long-term negative effects.” Outsiders who fail to bring the change they promise can make voters even more cynical about their country’s politics.
Another comedian half a world away has had an even tougher time since being elected.
Jimmy Morales has been president of Guatemala since October 2015, when he came into office making vague promises to combat corruption. With the slogan “ni corrupto, ni ladrón”— “neither corrupt nor a crook”— Morales used his almost fifteen years of experience starring in a slapstick comedy show to sell a simple message to Guatemala’s frustrated voters. (In an eerie echo of Zelenskiy’s television character, in one episode on Morales’s former show, his character accidentally ran for president, and won.)
But Morales seems to have become the corrupt politician he pledged to never be. He’s tried to stop an anti-corruption investigation into his government (his own brother and son were arrested on fraud charges in 2017), a move some observers say amounts to a “slow-motion coup” that threatens to further destabilize the country.
It’s examples like these, and a number of other examples of so-called “outsiders” who have vaulted themselves into the highest offices—U.S. President Trump included—that should have Ukrainians worrying. And for a man who’s pledged to combat corruption, Zelenskiy’s connections to controversial oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi don’t help.
Zelenskiy and his team seem to be aware of the worries; for one, they’ve made a point of surrounding the rookie president-elect with a coterie of experts and advisors. Zelenskiy has also pledged to continue the country’s pro-NATO, pro-EU path, and hardly appears to be the Kremlin stooge that Poroshenko’s loudest minority of supporters have made him out to be. There’s also no shortage of cautious commentators from within Ukraine and beyond who have suggested that, even if he’s far from perfect, Zelenskiy’s presidency might not be so bad.
Still, it’s a big gamble. So-called “outsider candidates,” especially in countries plagued by corruption, have a chance to try to remake their country’s politics, bridging the gap between citizens and the ossified, traditional political classes, Roberto Rodríguez Andrés, a political communications professor at the University of Navarra in Spain, wrote in a 2016 academic paper. But “if they fail,” Rodriguez Andres wrote, if “they end up acquiring those same vices and ways of acting, if they fail to fulfill their promises of change…then there will be disappointment among a large part of the electorate that will further deepen the atmosphere of disaffection”—something Rodriguez Andres warns is “undoubtedly negative” for democracy.
Barely minutes after the polls had closed Sunday night, Ukraine’s new showman president was strutting his way past the hordes of assembled journalists and supporters, a coy showman’s smirk and smile on display as he made his way toward the stage. The theme song from his television show blared in the background.
In the coming weeks, as the election hangover slowly fades and Zelenskiy and his team are confronted by Ukraine’s many, real problems, the country will find out whether its new president can do more than just pretend to play one on TV. And if Zelenskiy’s comedian-turned-politician counterparts around the world are any indication, Ukraine might be in for a tough summer.