Zelensky, a populist of a new brand

The winner of the first round in the Ukrainian presidential elections is someone who has never held a government position and has no record of political or civic activism. Rather, Volodymyr Zelensky has risen to prominence by ridiculing in tv shows the politicians he is running against. No doubt, he is a populist, but one who defies the existing left and right wing models, writes political scientist Sergiy Kudelia.  

by Sergiy Kudelia

There are three prevalent explanations for Zelensky’s surprising success in his new political role. One centers on the longing of Ukrainian voters for new faces in politics and their fatigue with the post-Soviet elites epitomized by Tymoshenko and Poroshenko. According to this argument, Zelensky effectively capitalized on the popular demand for generational change and benefitted from the absence of other prominent anti-establishment contenders for the presidency.

zelenskyComedian Volodymyr Zelensky is not a Beppe Grillo, nor a Donald Trump. Photo Wikimedia

The second explanation centers on the role of Ukrainian billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky, whose TV channel 1+1 was the main media platform for the promotion of Zelensky’s show and, later, for the launch of his campaign in prime time on New Year’s Eve. On this logic, it was Kolomoisky’s feud with Poroshenko over nationalization of his key asset, PrivatBank, that made the runaway oligarch – he lives in Israel - keen to prevent the current president from being re-elected and therefore interested in investing his resources in Zelensky’s campaign.

The third explanation relates to the prevalence of younger voters among Zelensky’s supporters. From this standpoint, his rise in the polls is owing to his fan base, which is unable to separate the real Zelensky from his character on the show. However, this explanation suggests that he might have trouble expanding his electoral coalition beyond this core of fans.

Election results

The turnout was 63,5%, higher than in the presidential elections after the Maidan in 2014, when the turnout was 60,3%.

The regional differences in voting behaviour have become smaller. De main challenger of the incumbent president, Volodymyr Zelensky, somewhat reduced the electoral contrasts between the western en southeastern parts of Ukraine.

In 21 of the 27 constituencies Zelensky won most votes of all 39 candidates. In no more than 6 constituencies he lost from incumbent Petro Poroshenko, former prime-minister Yulia Timoshenko or from the more of less pro-Russian candidate Yury Boyko.

In the two West-Ukrainian constituencies of Lviv andTernopil and among the Ukrainian diaspora Poroshenko took the lead. Timoshenko was frontrunner in Ivano Frankivsk. In the Donbas-areas under Ukrainian authority near Donetsk and Lugansk most people voted for Boyko.

In all other constituencies Zelensky prevailed. Varying from 42% in Odessa (22% for Boyko) and 36% in Charkiv (27% for Boyko) and 45% in Dnipropetrovsk (12% for Boyko) to 40% in Transcarpathia (15% for Timoshenko).

In the capital Kiev, after Charkiv and Dnipropetrovsk  the largest constituency with 2 million voters,  the results for Zelensky and Poroshenko were closest, 27 and 25% respectively.

Each of these explanations has a certain degree of validity, but they also overlook other fundamental factors associated with Zelensky’s new populist brand that have helped him gain the lead in the 2019 race.

Compared with Beppe Grillo

Zelensky’s  rise has been often compared to the success of Italy’s Five Star Movement—likewise led by a comedian, Beppe Grillo—and viewed in the context of the populist wave rising across the West. However, his campaign messages lack the signature issues embraced by contemporary populist parties.

Unlike right-wing populists, he avoids playing identity politics, whether appealing to ethnic or religious heritage or scapegoating minority groups. He constantly switches between the Russian and Ukrainian languages. Unlike left-wing populists, he does not promise to increase government spending on social benefits, raise taxes on the wealthy, or implement income redistribution schemes. The only two former government officials with whom he has met during the campaign have often been praised in the West as neoliberal reformers who advocate less government intervention, greater fiscal discipline, and quicker privatization.

His main opponents—Poroshenko and Tymoshenko—displayed much greater similarities to some of these populist positions. Poroshenko has based his campaign on nativist calls to privilege the use of the Ukrainian language and recognize the exclusivity of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, established under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. The centerpiece of Tymoshenko’s “new course” was the promise to lower energy prices for household consumers and to triple the average wages of Ukrainians to approximately the level of their Polish neighbors’ by the end of her term (currently, monthly wages average 300 Euro in Ukraine, compared to 900 Euro in Poland).

Direct rule

There are three important features of his campaign that make Zelensky a quintessential populist candidate. The first is the centrality of anti-establishment sentiment, which he channels through the campaign slogan 'Let’s trounce them together!' (Zrobimo їkh razom!) He never attacked individual candidates or challenged their proposals. He refused to debate any specific rival. Instead, Zelensky ran against the entire political class, which is widely discredited in the popular imagination as greedy and corrupt.

The second characteristic is Zelensky’s embrace of the instruments of direct rule, which create the illusion of the exercise of popular sovereignty. The first bill that he promises to introduce is the law on 'People’s Rule' (Narodovladdia), which is supposed to establish legal mechanisms, such as referendums, by which Ukrainians could 'set the main tasks for the authorities.'

His media campaign emphasizes direct communication, with the leader addressing his supporters from a handheld phone. In the new selfie culture, this eliminates the usual distance between voters and politicians and establishes a more intimate connection to his supporters. He also invites direct input into the key decisions of his campaign. In one of Zelensky’s first Facebook videos as candidate, he called on his followers to 'write a program with him' and then come up with 'solutions,' since he does not want to make 'empty promises' like 'old politicians.' In another campaign message, he invited voters to send their nominations for prime minister, prosecutor general, and other government positions. This type of individual engagement of voters, which bypasses established intermediary channels, fosters a sense of “direct representation”—one of the hallmarks of populist leadership.


Finally, Zelensky’s popularity ultimately rests on supra-rational faith in him as a new type of post-ideological leader without any specific ideas or programmatic appeal. His program is a collection of good wishes—from a secure and just state to wealthy and healthy citizens—without a realistic roadmap for how to achieve any of them. He substitutes traditional political rallies with free comedy shows staged in cities around the country.

Most importantly, Zelensky defies familiar ideological categorization, particularly the one that has guided Ukrainian voters in all elections since 2004. His foreign policy positions, particularly support for NATO and EU membership, may be in line with the representatives of the former “orange” camp. Other views, however, particularly on the need for a negotiated solution to the Donbas conflict, non-discriminatory policies regarding use of the Russian language, and pluralism in memory politics, are closer to the preferences of voters in Southeastern Ukraine.

Rather than alienating voters from both sides, however, Zelensky has managed to create a broader coalition of support that transcends old ideological divides. His voting coalition is much younger than that of his opponents, consisting mainly of voters under 45. Moreover, Zelensky has won among voters in all income groups, which shows that the appeal of his brand of populism is not based on exploiting socio-economic cleavages and class hatreds. Rather, it combines a chance for radical intergenerational change (and 'kicking the rascals out') with a promise to give adequate representation to multiple discontented groups that have been either ignored, dismissed, or duped by established political parties. 

Voters clearly judge him by a different set of standards than they do ordinary politicians. His lack of governing experience may actually be viewed as an asset by those who see 2019 as a transformative election. 

Nation-building vs clean government

Irrespective of its outcome, Ukraine’s 2019 electoral race has already been revealing in a number of ways. It has pointed to the major disconnect between the authorities’ nation-building priorities and the preferences of an average Ukrainian, who seeks clean government, a dignified income, and a pluralistic society. It has demonstrated that despite years of armed conflict and government coercion, Ukrainians remain largely immune to base nationalistic appeals or crude state propaganda. The election campaign has also proved that despite the government’s use of authoritarian practices, Ukraine maintains a degree of openness and competitiveness in its electoral process that is rare in the post-Soviet space.

This is an abridged republication of an article on Ponars Eurasia.org

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