Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko used to be an ordinary high school history teacher who cycled to and from work every morning. One day, he delivers a speech at school criticizing political corruption in Ukraine; it is uploaded to the internet and soon spreads across the world. Overnight, Holoborodko instantly becomes a celebrity, eventually being elected as President, successfully reforming corrupt Ukraine politics. This is the storyline of the nation’s popular television show Servant of the People. However, this is no longer mere drama. Sometimes, the reality is even more dramatic than the drama itself.
Surprisingly, the actor who played Ukraine’s President on that television show has now become the actual President of Ukraine. On April 21, Volodymyr Zelensky, a famous former comedian, won the presidential election by a landslide. The official exit polls showed Zelensky leading the polls, which came as a global shock. To people’s surprise, this was actually not the first time. Jimmy Morales was also a comedian who was elected as the President of Guatemala. Why would people vote for these unusual candidates instead of traditional politicians?
The answer is simple. It is because they simply need a new face. Ukrainians are highly pessimistic about politics due to Petro Poroshenko, the former leader of Ukraine, who was involved in a corruption scandal and failed to improve the economy. They simply want someone who can satisfy their needs, and Zelensky happened to be the one. While the intention seems to be moderate, the reality is not as romantic as it seems. In fact, Zelensky had almost zero experience in politics. While the President is the leader of the nation who must be able to decide on significant matters for the entire country, his political views and other values that he holds remain unknown.
To put it starkly, Zelensky became President not due to his presidential ability but due to the combination of his showmanship and people’s fantasy. To avoid being a puppet, Zelensky needs to meet the expectations of the whole nation, which means eradicating corruption and poverty at their roots. In order to do this, it is important for him to initially work on gaining solid support both within and beyond the party for his ideas. Because there are still Poroshenko’s factions remaining at the assembly, Zelensky should convince them to stand by him to preserve his popularity.
Ukraine is also one of the poorest nations in Europe and, given the ongoing Russian military intervention, Zelensky should ultimately try to strengthen Ukraine’s position in the world as well. In that sense, instead of trying traditional methods that have failed in the past, Zelensky might be able to use his politically idiosyncratic traits to conduct political negotiations with Russia. As Russians have signaled strongly that they are unwilling to have conversations with pro-Western Poroshenko, Zelensky could perhaps use his status as an outsider to reach a settlement with Russia.
“I’m just an ordinary person who has come to break the system.” Zelensky has acknowledged his lack of experience, so his tenure is sure to be an anxious one, at least at the beginning, as he moves Ukrainian politics in an unknown direction. Will he simply remain a performer who promotes a show or will he be a real President who will successfully revive the economy of Ukraine? Zelensky should recognize the bittersweet reality in which people are tired of political hypocrisy, longing for change. The political revolution in Ukraine has already taken a step forward, and now it is Zelensky’s turn to keep that going.