A comedian leads the race as Ukraine heads to polls


Ukraine’s democracy might be lacking in many important regards – but on the participative principle, it excels to the extreme.

On Friday, Kiev’s Central Elections Commission kicked off the presidential campaign by announcing it had registered a record 44 candidates for the 31 March vote. This was over twice the number that took part in the last elections in 2014.

Following the long-time favourites – ex-PM Yulia Tymoshenko and current President Petro Poroshenko – came the name of a comedian – Vladimir Zelensky. With two months to go before election day, polls fail to show a clear leader. No candidate has passed 20% of decided voters, let alone the 50% required to avoid a second round run-off. But the one man who has grown in popularity is Zelensky.

A number of polls now suggest Zelensky has overtaken Tymoshenko to pole position. Depending on the poll, 14-16% of the active electorate suggesting they will now vote for him. That rating has shot up by 5% in the last month.

Zelensky’s clever campaign is based on engaging disaffected voters and looks to take advantage of the kinds of swings that brought Donald Trump and Brexit home.

His advantage is that people already know him. He’s well remembered for a role in a serial called “Servants of the People”, where, he plays a teacher whose battle against government corruption propels him to run for the presidency.

And the image of an outsider, breaking in politics is fuelling his popularity. Despite his lack of political experience, Zelensky has shown solid political intuition, focusing on positive themes of “dreams” and “national renewal”. This plays in contrast with the aggressive patriotic positions of Poroshenko, and equally aggressive populist positions of Tymoshenko.

Independent expert Vladimir Fesenko suggests Zelensky’s chances of winning may be as high as 25%. “This myth that he can come from the people to become president is very strong,” he says.

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