Ukrainian comedian clinches presidency with landslide victory

Zelenskiy’s triumph owes a lot to his newcomer status and comes despite a campaign that’s been light on policy proposals


KIEV • Ukraine’s most-watched comedian won a landslide victory in Sunday’s presidential runoff as voters vented their frustration at the ex- Soviet republic’s lack of progress since a revolution five years ago.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy (picture), a 41-year-old TV comic who’s tapped into fury at the political class, got 73.2% of ballots after almost 84% of votes were counted.

Incumbent Petro Poroshenko, who conceded defeat after exit polls showed his loss, garnered 24.5% as of yesterday morning.

Zelenskiy’s triumph owes a lot to his newcomer status and comes despite a campaign that’s been heavy on style with only a sprinkling of policy proposals.

“People are disillusioned with the old elite, which hasn’t proved itself after the revolution,” Yuriy Yakymenko, an analyst at the Razumkov Centre for Economic and Political Studies in Kiev, said by phone.

“Zelenskiy positioned himself as a populist politician opposed to the old authorities. He and the people are on one side and the old politicians on the other.”

Lying on a geopolitical fault line between Russia and the European Union (EU), Ukraine has taken on a global significance since protesters kicked out Kremlin-backed Viktor Yanukovych in 2014 and Russia annexed Crimea.

The West has provided billions of dollars in aid, while Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to meddle, aiming to eventually regain influence.

US President Donald Trump called Zelenskiy to congratulate him and pledged support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, in implementing reforms and in fighting corruption.

Zelenskiy’s victory was also greeted by French President Emmanuel Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Behind the rise of Zelenskiy, who stars in a TV show about a fictional president, is the kind of anti-establishment zeal that’s engulfed the continent and other parts of the world.

He joins other comics-turned-politicians including Italy’s Beppe Grillo and Slovenia’s Marjan Sarec.

Zelenskiy promised to crack down on corruption, continue work with the International Monetary Fund and help bring peace to eastern Ukraine, where a war with Russian-backed forces persists.

But specifics have been hard to come by. He’s preferred glitz and drama, and failed to meet a pledge to announce his picks for key posts before the deciding vote.

“I’m not a politician — I’m an ordinary person who came to break this system,” Zelenskiy said last Friday at a stadium debate with his opponent.

On Sunday, he signalled he’ll replace the country’s top prosecutor, who’s unpopular among Ukrainians and Western donors alike, but leave central bank governor Yakiv Smoliy in place.

Poroshenko, a 53-year-old confectionery tycoon, notched successes in office including securing visa-free travel for Ukrainians to the EU and helping create an Orthodox church independent of Russia.

But many reforms were too slow, the economy was lacklustre and crooked officials and those responsible for the deaths of protesters five years ago weren’t punished. Many Ukrainians left to work abroad.

Poroshenko sought to put a new spin on his campaign in recent weeks, accelerating steps to get an anti-corruption court up and running, and promising to appoint younger people to his administration. But it wasn’t enough.

One thing both candidates agreed on was Ukraine’s achievement in holding such a free election, a feat most former members of the Soviet Union don’t manage.

“I as a Ukrainian citizen can say to all post-Soviet countries: ‘Look at us — everything is possible!’” Zelenskiy said. — Bloomberg