OPINION: Acting like the president

A Ukrainian comedian who plays the president on TV is just a step away from winning the office for real — but will voters be the punchline?


Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy being photographed on the set of his TV show ‘Servant of the People,’ where he plays a schoolteacher-turned-president. (EFREM LUKATSKY | ASSOCIATED PRESS)

While Chicagoans were in the middle of a mayoral election, Ukrainians were embroiled in a presidential election that felt like something of a joke. As Ukrainians went to the polls on March 31, the only real choice they were faced with was between a president many feel is corrupt, and one with a glistening record as president, a man of the people who spends his time rooting out government corruption.

This latter candidate sounds perfect, but his only real political experience is acting as the president on television.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy is best known as an actor and a comedian, kind of like a Ukrainian version of Ryan Seacrest. Ukrainians are used to seeing him in their living rooms on the small screen, either enjoying his hysterical jokes on shows from Kvartal 95, or buying tickets to see him in a new rom-com.

In 2015 though, Zelenskiy took on the role of President of Ukraine in the hugely popular show “Servant of the People.” The show entertained plenty, but art seems to be imitating real life now. Early last year, Zelenskiy’s team founded the new Servant of the People political party.

People are voting for Zelenskiy because of his fame instead of the things he has done for the country. This is crazy to see, especially in comparison to the recent Chicago mayoral election where candidates were trying to prove that they were genuinely the best person for the job by showing how they served the public and how successful their previous projects were.

“Humor has always been a sign of intelligence,” Zelenskiy told a group of foreign journalists in a recent interview.

The results of the first round of elections came out unexpected to many people, including Volodymyr Zelenskiy himself.

“I’m very happy, but this is not the final action,” Zelenskiy told the BBC’s Jonah Fisher, minutes after exit polls were announced.

The primary results give the comedian 30 percent of the vote, putting him in the lead for the first round of presidential elections in Ukraine. At the same time, the incumbent president Petro Poroshenko came in second with just under 16 percent. Because no candidate crossed the 50 percent threshold, Zelenskiy and Poroshenko will face off in a second-round on April 21.

Ukrainian people lost faith in their government a long time ago. According to Gallup, 91 percent of people in Ukraine say corruption is widespread in government. So, could it potentially be one of the reasons why Ukrainians are willing to vote for someone who has no experience in politics? Citizens of Ukraine want to see new people, new faces in power who would actually do something for the country rather than pursuing their own personal goals. They want a clean president who promises easy solutions and quick progress.

These aren’t unrealistic things for voters to want; being a fresh-faced outsider is exactly what Lori Lightfoot just ran on to become Chicago’s new chief. But is the best person to be President of Ukraine truly just someone who is good at acting like the President of Ukraine?

“In Ukraine we didn’t have as many candidates, only Zelenskiy, Poroshenko, Timoshenko and Boyko,” said Sasha Baranov, a Ukrainian citizen. “Timoshenko is a good candidate and could have been a good opponent for all of them, if only she didn’t have [a] troubling past. She served in prison for embezzlement and abuse of power, and that is something people will not forget.”

So, as long as they haven’t served prison time for embezzlement and abuse of power, can anyone win an election nowadays? If you’re famous enough, will that get you an office?

If we look back at the U.S. election in 2016, we saw a similar thing with Donald Trump. Before entering politics, Trump was known chiefly as a television personality who could fire people, and rose to political prominence by promoting the “birther” conspiracy about Barack Obama, as he did during an interview on “Good Morning America” in 2011. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, was much more experienced, with years of political experience under her belt. But it seems that if you have the right team of people working for you, creating a certain appealing picture, then you quite likely would win.

People believe what they see in the media and hope for a better future for their country. People want to believe that whoever this new person is, they will be different. As much as people want to believe Zelenskiy is different though, there’s been plenty of reporting about his connections to Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who used to control Ukraine’s Privat Bank before it was nationalized by Poroshenko.

“Poroshenko took away Kolomoisky’s Privat Bank, and it looks like he didn’t forgive him for that and decided to put his person in the election,” said Roman Leyko, Ukrainian citizen. “Of course, it is just a theory, but you can’t deny that Zelenskiy is from Kolomoisky.”

So, currently people have to choose between two candidates that both have questionable agendas and questionable reasons for why they want to be the president. It is troubling that, apparently, Ukrainians are voting for someone like Zelenskiy merely because they like him and he is new to politics, despite questions about his relationship to an oligarch like Kolomoisky. People are voting for Zelenskiy because they enjoy the version of him they’ve seen on television. Of course, they are voting for him because many people simply hate the current president. Since the country had a revolution only a few years ago, can they really put up with more political disappointment?