No Laughing Matter: What the Presidential Elections in Ukraine Have to Teach Us about Politics
When the possibility arose that Ukrainian actor and comedian Volodymyr Zelensky could run for President of Ukraine and actually win, it might well have elicited a few amused chuckles and raised eyebrows, but it was no longer a laughing matter when he came to dominate opinion polls and eventually confirmed his approval ratings by winning the elections by a landslide, garnering over 73% of the votes. Zelensky soundly defeated incumbent Petro Poroshenko against the backdrop of the ongoing war in the Donbass region between anti-Russian and pro-Russian factions.
Same old story
Like most countries which have broken off from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Ukraine’s newly-formed political class was comprised mostly of former elements of the Soviet administration. As was the case in Russia, several of these rode the wave of the transition from a centralised, planned economy to a market economy and became powerful oligarchs, and Ukraine’s main economic sectors were dominated by a small number of players, Poroshenko himself being part of this group.
Poroshenko’s election in 2014 was itself an expression of the country’s westward bent, having been a strong supporter of a pro-Western rapprochement according to the BBC and receiving, at the time, strong support from the US and EU. However, he gradually lost popular support throughout his presidency. Alya Shandra of Euromaidan Press gives several reasons for Poroshenko’s defeat, such as unpopular and/or unsuccessful reforms, neglecting key segments of the Ukrainian population in his campaign, as well as the latter’s love-hate relationship with authority figures and its confused outlook on politics partly due to its colonial past and lingering influences from the Soviet system, leading people to place high hopes in a given candidate, only for disappointment to replace hope. Not only that, but according to the same source, Poroshenko failed to bring a satisfactory resolution to the war in Ukraine as he initially promised. Furthermore, allegations of corruption and tax evasion (as per the infamous Panama Papers) as well as his wealth increasing while the country’s economy suffered did little more than seal his fate in this year’s elections. Analyses preceding the elections had underscored the chaotic realm of Ukrainian politics, while another author from Euromaidan Press described Poroshenko’s image being bombarded online on Russian-speaking social media.
A few decades before him, a moderately successful actor by the name of Ronald Reagan was elected President, succeeding Jimmy Carter. Reagan’s two consecutive terms are remembered quite fondly by Americans.
As tempting as it might be to write off this outcome as the whim of a country whose political class is disintegrating, we have seen a similar story even in highly developed countries, foremost among them the United States, where businessman Donald Trump overtook veteran politician Hillary Clinton in the race for the Presidency of the United States. A few decades before him, a moderately successful actor by the name of Ronald Reagan was elected President, succeeding Jimmy Carter. Reagan’s two consecutive terms are remembered quite fondly by Americans, having some of the highest approval ratings of any US President ever due to his economic policies that reinvigorated the US economy and for outlasting the United States’ long-standing Cold War rival, the Soviet Union. While not without his controversies in the public eye (e.g. the US involvement in the Iran-Iraq war, the Iran-Contra affair etc.), it is clear that his political successes largely outshined his acting career. In a lesser-known political landscape, the 2010 – 2014 mayor of Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík, was also a successful comedian and actor: Jón Gnarr.
What do a comedian, an actor and a business tycoon have in common? The easiest answer is that they have all successfully run for President, but that would be looking for the answers in the wrong place. No, the commonality consists not so much in them skyrocketing into politics, but in the context that fuelled their ships and gave them the green light for lift-off –the political environment in their respective countries had been undergoing a crisis that left voters jaded, despondent and desperate. There are three major elements that, in my view, can shed light on the roots of this enigma.
In Ukraine’s case, Foreign Policy’s Justin Lynch noted the country’s vulnerability to data manipulation and cyber-propaganda.
First, let us remember a core aspect of human psychology: we deal in generalisations and stereotypes – a collection of characteristics and expectations that we associate with a given group or role. Normally, these traits are basic, superficial observations made over a small sample of people sharing ascription to the same category, defined by a vast range of criteria such as nationality, occupation, socio-economic status, religion, music preference, native language etc. – these observations are then assumed to apply to every member of that group as well. While many of these observations are questionable and subject to all sorts of cognitive biases, they form one of the units that people use to navigate the world by simplifying it somewhat. Stereotypes can be negative (e.g. certain ethnicities are inherently more predisposed towards anti-social behaviour) as well as positive (e.g. certain ethnicities are inherently more gifted in a given domain or field of study).
Whether broad or narrow, stereotypes are, unsurprisingly, used most often by members of one group to assess those of other groups – it is essentially an outsider’s perspective. When some members of a group manage to surpass the role associated with them and its related stereotypes, when they manage to reinvent it completely or encompass its most positive aspects – in other words, when someone dominates their stereotype instead of being dominated by it – that is when they become role models, people others look up to and seek to emulate. As such, role models gain a good degree of influence in popular view, for as long as they do not succumb to the foibles and trappings of the stereotypes associated with their role. Role models distinguish themselves in the eyes of the followers, and they become far more easily identified and differentiated from others like them.
When people invest their hopes in someone with no political experience, from a profession that has nothing to do with governance or administration, it is a signal that either that country’s political environment is sufficiently inclusive that anyone can join and be elected or, more often than not, that country’s population has stopped taking the political class seriously altogether.
To give an example that most Romanians would surely recognise: police officers are sometimes thought of in unflattering terms, and their perceived lack of manners and deficient mental agility is fodder for many jokes. Of course, people would agree that there are plenty of good policemen that do their jobs professionally, risk their lives to ensure public safety, who deserve our respect and should not be lumped together with the bad apples. There may be many good policemen, but there is only one Marian Godină – a traffic officer widely appreciated for his honesty, humour, eloquence and standing up in the face of pressure from his superiors after fining local high-profile figures for various traffic violations. Officer Godină thus overcame the common stereotype of policemen as boorish and incompetent brutes and stood out as the epitome of all that people expect of a policeman – decency, dignity and duty. It is one thing to think about good officers in general terms, prompting one to think of abstract, barebones categories, but it is something else altogether to think of an individual officer strongly defined and differentiated in the eyes of the people – a person they can relate far better to instead of a class or a template.
Getting the joke
Now, let us consider a basic tool of microeconomic theory: preference. In layman’s terms, a preference is how much a consumer desires a certain good in relation to other goods. When a consumer is indifferent to several goods, and they fail to satisfy their wants, then the consumer will either simply go with the choice he is most familiar with to avoid a greater degree of discomfort, or seek out other goods available, which are a better fit to his needs. However exotic the good of choice might be, it will be something the consumer will assume can fulfil their needs. Let us now look back at the problem at hand: how do these three concepts – a tendency to think in terms of roles and generalisations, role models and economic preferences – weave into it? What do they have to do with politics and people choosing comedians instead of politicians?
Another aspect to retain is that a celebrity’s public image defines who they are in the mind of ordinary citizens. This confers unto them a certain familiarity with the citizens, leaving a positive imprint which gives them a significant popularity advantage, as opposed to a politician whose public image is defined by the credibility of the faction they belong to, the institution they represent and the office they hold.
To answer these questions, we may as well imagine the electorate’s mental landscape – shaped by the voters’ values, beliefs and desires, both common and individual – as the marketplace for politicians, where they sell a product. That product is typically a conviction, a strong belief in a project that the politician presents as feasible and addressing the voters’ needs. In short, it is a credible promise of a future. How credible is the promise depends highly on the credibility of the person or the entity supporting it, and how credible said actor is depends on how well they have conquered their role and distinguished their integrity in the eyes of the electorship. Trouble arises when no such political entity succeeds in differentiating itself in the voters’ mental landscape. When the competing factions fail to positively distinguish themselves in the eyes of the citizens, when they all seem to speak the same language, say the same things and hold the same level of credibility, they no longer position themselves as distinct actors instead of templates to the electors. This is when indifference intervenes.
Should these factions hold, however, a sufficient level of credibility to the voters, then the voters are confused, and statistics will reflect that. This typically leads to several factions allying with one another in the hopes of securing better chances of winning and/or an increase in the use of smear tactics to negatively differentiate a given opponent. When that level of credibility is absent, then the voters are more likely to vote against a candidate or faction (as was the case in France, where it has been suggested that the French voted not so much in favour of Emmanuel Macron as they did against Marine Le Pen). In Ukraine’s case, Foreign Policy’s Justin Lynch noted the country’s vulnerability to data manipulation and cyber-propaganda. Expounding upon his observation, we can further infer that this susceptibility is bolstered by the population’s existing distrust towards the political class and the mechanisms underlying the country’s institutional governance, as well as a penury of candidates who could convince the population of their legitimacy.
The question now comes down to what Zelensky will do as President, what can be expected of him and what he can provide.
On the other hand, voters are just as inclined to begin to look towards someone else who joins the race – someone who is perceived as distinct from the mass, with a good enough reputation (i.e. a role model) in their profession, someone who is not perceived as liable to succumb to the darker sides of politics. Often, they tend to be people from politically-relevant fields: lawyers, economists, high-performing bureaucrats, increasing their chances of success when the populace still takes the political class seriously. When people invest their hopes in someone with no political experience, from a profession that has nothing to do with governance or administration, it is a signal that either that country’s political environment is sufficiently inclusive that anyone can join and be elected or, more often than not, that country’s population has stopped taking the political class seriously altogether.
Walking in the biggest shoes
These voting preferences also tend to reflect the citizens’ subconscious perception of what the establishment is lacking: Reagan projected self-confidence and charisma, unlike Jimmy Carter before him who, despite now having been vindicated as a competent President, was then perceived as weak and ineffectual due to his meek manner and introverted temperament (as opposed to the values of the American values of confidence, competition and confrontation). Trump, as argued in an article written on the occasion of his election, is the embodiment of the ultimate American dream: financially powerful, assertive and self-confident, head of his own, massively successful business, capable of action, compared to Hillary Clinton who had failed to establish herself as a politically capable actor of her own philosophy, ideology and vision, her commitment being to continue the policies of a cabinet largely perceived to have mismanaged the economic crisis. Zelensky is a comedian as well as an actor, though he is also a trained lawyer; his presence in the public eye is associated with a silver lining in a country that has experienced the horrors and chaos of war, the throes of a transition from a Communist regime to a market economy and the disappointment of this transition being carried out by former members of the Communist apparatus. Then again, it might also be the populace’s way of saying that, to them, politics has turned into little more than a sitcom that needed better humour, and this year’s elections were the punch line.
Nevertheless, the main fear underlying this warning is that, in the hopes of securing an early political advantage and high approvals, Zelensky may agree to certain concessions or deals which, while bringing an end to the conflict, would further pull Ukraine away from the West and into tighter relations with Russia.
Furthermore, all three presidents had previously rendered a service unto the populace, in the form of entertainment (Reagan and Zelensky), accommodation, business services and leisure (Trump). Another aspect to retain is that a celebrity’s public image defines who they are in the mind of ordinary citizens. This confers unto them a certain familiarity with the citizens, leaving a positive imprint which gives them a significant popularity advantage, as opposed to a politician whose public image is defined by the credibility of the faction they belong to, the institution they represent and the office they hold. Last but not least, the three presidents’ positions in the minds of the electors can be narrowed down to the very basic concepts of an ideal image, familiarity and earnestness: Trump represented the American ideal, as already explained; in Reagan’s case, a certain closeness to the common people from his folksy manner and avuncular charm, while Zelensky’s image as sufficiently distinct from Ukraine’s political sphere so as not to not be tainted by it yet sufficiently involved in the country’s domestic affairs so as to be relevant gave him a solid edge.
Briefly put, all three presidents have been tests for their countries’ political class, and their success was as much of a failure of the political class to provide a worthy candidate as it was a gasp for a breath of fresh air by the electors. Unlike Ronald Reagan, though, who had previously served as Governor of California, Zelensky and Trump had no political experience prior to their elections. Whereas Reagan has been vindicated, having managed to successfully conduct geopolitical affairs and outlast Soviet competition, leaving the US the world’s dominant superpower by the time he had left office, Trump’s foreign and domestic policies have often come under heavy fire from critics (as were Reagan’s back in the day), with most of his decisions with regards to both the US allies and rivals being surrounded by no shortage of controversy. The question now comes down to what Zelensky will do as President, what can be expected of him and what he can provide.
Throughout Europe, people perceive the political class in an increasingly difficult position to accurately respond to the socio-economic challenges of recent times.
Justin Lynch highlighted several aspects that surround Zelensky’s elections: for once, he indicated how the actor-turned-president might simply have played a very convincing role, capitalising on his existing fame and positive image. Lynch further pinpoints that Zelensky’s lack of political experience will invite actors both from abroad (i.e. Russia, whom Ukraine must negotiate gas deals with) as well as from within (i.e. Ukraine’s oligarchs and the political institutions) to test his boundaries and capability to act effectively. BBC takes a similar outlook and expresses that, while Zelensky won over the voters thanks to his charisma and fame, he now has to contend with separatist militias in the Eastern parts of the country and pressure from Russia, as former President Poroshenko warns of the danger of Zelensky’s inexperience making Ukraine susceptible to being cowed by Russia’s clout.
A rock and a hard place
Geopolitically, Ukraine is a classic example of a buffer zone between Russia and the West in general (the EU and NATO), as well as the scene of a proxy war between two sides, each providing support to different candidates and to military factions warring in the Donbass. As other analysts have pointed out, Zelensky must now live up to the ambitious promises he made during the campaign, chief among which is this very conflict. Shaun Walker writes that Western diplomats have indirectly expressed concern on Zelensky’s possible approach to domestic and foreign policies, warning him to not initiate talks unilaterally with separatists, arguing that this would only strengthen Russia’s assertion that the conflict is an internal one (i.e. without Russian backing). Nevertheless, the main fear underlying this warning is that, in the hopes of securing an early political advantage and high approvals, Zelensky may agree to certain concessions or deals which, while bringing an end to the conflict, would further pull Ukraine away from the West and into tighter relations with Russia. The success of stopping the conflict might well offset the idea of collaborating with Russia – the Ukrainian citizens have not forgotten the Euromaidan, and Zelensky must be ever mindful of this.
Russian President Vladimir Putin initially declined to congratulate Zelensky or speak about the prospects of them collaborating, these thoughts of his having been conveyed through his spokesperson, an indirect manner of showing that he does not take Zelensky seriously enough to speak with him personally, instead inserting a barrier between them. The newly-elected Ukrainian President recently offered to meet with Vladimir Putin to discuss the situation in Ukraine, namely the status of Crimea and Russian support for separatists; at the time of writing this, the offer is still under consideration by the Kremlin. This is most certainly an effort on Zelensky’s part to demonstrate that he intends to keep the promises he made. The outcomes of a discussion with Putin depend on whether or not the meeting will be bilateral or multilateral.
If it is Ukraine and Russia in a bilateral setting, then it is fairly unlikely Putin would ever agree to review Crimea’s status or withdraw support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine without a concession that would bring him a significant geostrategic advantage (e.g. with regards to gas transit, easier access to Russian businesses in key economic sectors, Ukraine relinquishing EU and NATO ambitions etc.), especially as he would never risk losing face or conceding ground in front of a politically inexperienced actor such as Zelensky. If Zelensky is supported by Western powers, he might increase his negotiation power by some measure, although more in the sense that the counter-offer he would have to make would be multilateral rather than bilateral; on the other hand, the talks would also run a higher risk of hitting a roadblock if Russia and the other participants fail to harmonise interests, as has been the case in the past.
Ultimately, perhaps it is his lack of political experience or affiliation and his acting ability that are his greatest assets because it confers a certain degree of unpredictability, and the lack of any solid expectations give him the room to build his own image. In any case, the stage is set.
At any rate, Putin reportedly holds the power to grant Russian passports to people living in the conflict regions of Ukraine with just one order, which according to Bloomberg could ignite strong tensions in that part of the country. There are many political and military problems that we can envision for Ukraine’s integrity stemming from people in its Eastern portion opting for Russian citizenship, ranging from legitimizing further Russian military incursions (and thus keeping it a constant threat) to disabling any arguments of Ukraine’s right to fight for that territory if enough people accept Russia’s offer. If that happens, Ukraine might lose its Eastern portion after all, which may well become an uncomfortable buffer zone between it and Russia, as well as a major blow for the government which would then be portrayed as having failed to protect the people it was supposed to serve. This will most likely be Putin’s bargaining chip in any negotiations to come, and a means to test Ukraine’s new president resolve and pragmatism.
At a broader level, Zelensky’s success sends a signal throughout the former Soviet countries that fair elections are possible and change is at hand. It is too early to speak about a post-Soviet Spring in the manner of the Arab Spring, but it is something oppositions everywhere in the former Soviet countries can expound upon, seeing that Zelensky is popular outside Ukraine as well. It is unfortunate, however, that this is also yet another data point on a chart that shows a rather worrisome trend: that throughout Europe, people perceive the political class in an increasingly difficult position to accurately respond to the socio-economic challenges of recent times; in the absence of convincing role models, this leaves people with three choices for casting their ballots: either in favour of actors they know and have grown used to, in spite of lacklustre and disappointing performances (i.e. “the most familiar of evils” paradigm), in favour of the entity with the least connection to the establishment, to high-level politics or business, hoping they will break the mould or at least be more approachable (i.e. “the silver lining” paradigm) or against a certain faction or actor (i.e. “the lesser of evils” paradigm).
In an ironic sleight of hand on fate’s part, the character Volodymyr Zelensky plays in a TV political satire series called Servant of the People is a high school teacher somehow ending up President of Ukraine. Zelensky has been appointed for an encore, this time in real life, and is expected to play the role almost literally. Depending on his political ability, he could be the country’s unlikely reformer who would orchestrate the country’s affairs to such effect that it will revitalise Ukraine’s politics, economics and society and set it on course towards modernisation, an Eastern European Renaissance. On the other hand, he might as well be yet another false Messiah of Ukrainian politics – his failure, however, will resound much worse, since it is precisely his apparent lack of connections to the political sphere or the world of oligarchs that earned him his seat. Should he not live up to the hopes of the people, it would strengthen the existing political class as people will likely stick with the devil they know and are used to. Ultimately, perhaps it is his lack of political experience or affiliation and his acting ability that are his greatest assets because it confers a certain degree of unpredictability, and the lack of any solid expectations give him the room to build his own image. In any case, the stage is set.