Comedian elected president
Just last Sunday, Ukraine held the second part of their national elections to decide the president for the next five years. The comedian Volodymyr Zelensky won a landslide victory, defeating the incumbent, prominent politician and oligarch Petro Poroshenko. Zelensky had already won the first part of the elections, which narrows the choice of president to two candidates from a set of 44. This initial result came as a surprise to most commentators, but they assumed that Poroshenko, a serious politician, would win the second election as he would rally the votes from the smaller parties. This did not happen, and Zelensky won with almost 75 percent of the votes.
Zelensky has a very difficult job ahead of him. Ukraine has become one of the most conflicted areas in Europe since Russia annexed Crimea, a peninsular region in southeastern Ukraine, as well as some regions on the eastern border. The country has been in a heated war for almost five years. Further, Ukraine is divided between those who favor a relationship with western Europe, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the EU, and the pro-Russia factions. A divided nation and a nation at war would be difficult for any seasoned politician to handle. Challenging is a nice word to use for the situation that now faces Zelensky, and his complete lack of political experience will not make it any easier.
There are many ways that the story of Donald Trump can be imposed onto Zelensky's election, but the most significant is how platforms were projected onto the candidates. Trump was infamously incredible at taking multiple positions on the same topic. It was rare that Trump’s history, tweets, and interviews would agree with his stated positions. This allowed for voters to project their platforms onto Trump, and a strange paradox was created, where two voters who held opposite positions on the same issue would both vote for Trump. Both kinds of citizens voted for an image of Trump that they created to fit the president they wanted, and neither knew the real Trump’s motivations.
This same phenomenon occurred with Zelensky's campaign. With no serious and committed platform, or any voting history to check with, voters projected their platforms onto the candidate. Some thought he would be pro-European, and others thought he would be pro-Russian, two highly motivating but mutually exclusive stances.
Further, both Zelensky and Poroshenko emerged from an incredibly distrustful political environment, where an outsider candidate can gain significant appeal. Zelensky ran strongly on anti-corruption, a position that sounds appealing but is difficult to implement. It’s a hugely popular issue in Ukraine, with a [2019 Gallup poll] finding that (https://news.gallup.com/poll/247976/world-low-ukrainians-confident-government.aspx), “91 [percent] in Ukraine say corruption is widespread in government.” Poroshenko’s image as a seasoned politician did not help him here, as his history was easily transformed into an image of corruption. This environment mirrors the situation during the 2016 elections, where “drain the swamp” became a prominent Trump slogan. Hillary plays the role of Poroshenko, and the demonization of her was either equal or greater. An anti-corruption position is almost always populist in nature, and it is clear both candidates maximized their public appeal by supporting unrealistic but popular positions. Zelensky promised $4,000 salaries for teachers and ambiguous reductions in tariffs and prices.
Very few know where Ukraine will go from here, but it is clear that the road will not be any smoother than before. Many think that Zelensky will be just as corrupt as his predecessor. One thing can be agreed upon: a weak Ukraine will benefit Russia and Vladimir Putin. It remains to be seen if Russia had a hand in Zelensky's election, but if Zelensky turns out to be easily corruptible or in Putin’s pocket, then Ukrainians may be facing another tough decade.
I think one important moral of this story is to show how effective new electioneering methods have become. As the 2020 U.S. elections rapidly approach, it's important that we remember what we learned from 2016: outsider candidates are not inherently good and platform projection is incredibly dangerous and misleading.