All the world’s a stage, so the saying goes, and in the constant reality show that is 2019, one country stands poised to elect a man most famous for pretending to be president to their highest office.
When Ukrainians voted on Sunday, they had no shortage of candidates to choose from — 39 in all, including two people with nearly identical names and a bachelor filming a reality show looking for his future first lady while he campaigns. But the clear leader in the polls was Volodymyr Zelensky, a 41-year-old actor who became a household name playing, in what some would call irony and others “lol 2019,” an unlikely president named Vasiliy Petrovich Goloborodko on the Ukrainian television show Servant of the People.
If you want to see what all the fuss is about, the first two episodes are available on YouTube with English subtitles, and if you’re in the US, the whole first season is up on Netflix. Wikipedia’s spot-on summary of the plot describes the show as being about “a thirty-something high school history teacher who wins election to the presidency of Ukraine after a viral video shows him ranting against government corruption.”
The rant in question, a plea to treat history like it matters given how the country’s politicians have become a revolving door of corrupt nobodies, is recorded surreptitiously by one of Goloborodko’s students on his smartphone and would definitely go viral in real-world Ukraine. And honestly it feels prescient, given that the show first aired in 2015, a year before a reality show star became the president of the United States.
While you may laugh at the idea of a comedian doing so well in the polls, let’s not forget that President Petro Poroshenko, the current leader of Ukraine, made his name as a businessperson in the chocolate business, a Slavic combination between a hardened magnate and Willy Wonka.
Poroshenko is running for reelection, but things haven’t exactly been the cakewalk you’d expect for an incumbent. Between the clash with Russia since it annexed Crimea and threw its backing behind two breakaway provinces in Ukraine’s east, a wobbly economic outlook, and a corruption scandal in the defense ministry, Poroshenko is only managing to grab roughly 16% approval in recent polls.
He also had the misfortune of facing down his political rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister who rose to power in the aftermath of the Orange Revolution. She then spent time in jail on corruption charges after losing the 2010 presidential election to Viktor Yanukovych, which were probably politically motivated despite evidence of other corrupt acts on her watch. Since her release in 2014, following the protest movement that kicked out Yanukovych, she’s become a member of Parliament and is trying to regain her spot at the top of Ukraine’s political heap.
Zelensky has been leaning in hard to the irreverent and frankly weird nature of his bid. There’s been no debates against other candidates, no in-depth interviews about his views, which broadly match up with the other top two candidates’ positions. “There’s been no election campaigning here,” he recently told a crowd gathered in a soccer stadium to see him, the Financial Times reported, in a visit that included dance routines and a litany of jokes. “Why would there be a need for campaigning? You’re smart people, you know what to do on March 31, right?”
And as this picture shows, the setup for his rallies doesn’t look too dissimilar from a circus’ main ring:
Zelensky’s production company has meanwhile been all-in on his run, lending the name of his television show to his newly formed political party. It doesn’t hurt that the third season of his show just started airing, just days before voting begins.
Things haven’t been completely smooth sailing for him. A Radio Free Europe investigation revealed in January that Zelensky’s Kvartal 95 production company had ties to Russian companies and that he himself “is a co-owner of a Cyprus-registered firm called Green Family LTD, which owns the Russian filmmaking company Grin Films.” He promised soon thereafter to divest from any Russian assets. But then on Thursday, a new report said that Zelensky had failed to disclose that he owns a 15-room villa in Italy. In a post on Instagram, his campaign called the report “fake.”
The Council on Foreign Relations’ Stephen Sestanovich has also noted that the owner of 1+1 Media, a media conglomerate that includes the channel airing Servant of the People, is Ihor Kolomoyskyi, one of the richest people in Ukraine and a former governor. “A corrupt and controversial billionaire owns the TV channel of Zelensky’s show, and no one seems to believe that it’s a business connection of no political significance,” he wrote. “But voters may not care.”
In opinion poll after opinion poll, both Poroshenko and Tymoshenko were projected to get fewer votes than Zelensky. Under Ukraine’s system, if no candidate wins a majority of votes, it goes to a runoff, meaning Zelensky was always poised to go head to head with whoever comes in second. And based on one poll released Tuesday — which had Zelensky garnering 26% of the vote, Tymoshenko at 19%, and Poroshenko coming in at 13% — it was looking like Poroshenko might be yet another one-term president for Ukraine.
But it's look as though Poroshenko may have just pulled it out. As on Monday, with around 80% of the votes counted, the incumbent had a slight lead over Tymoshenko, with 16% of people having voted for him. Tymoshenko has yet to concede.
Even though Zelensky appears to have won the first round, there’s still the second to get through. “Those who say they are voting for Zelenskiy are not voting for him, but rather against the status quo,” Brian Mefford, a consultant based in Ukraine, wrote for the Atlantic Council. “His candidacy is a classic protest vote. The first round gives voters a chance to register their disapproval, but in a runoff when the vote really matters, voters may reevaluate their support for Zelenskiy.”
Whichever contender Zelensky faces in the runoff, the show being staged in Ukraine is sure to be an interesting one, with no clear indication who’s going to take the final bow.