Ukrainian presidential election: the Zelensky phenomenon / News / News agency Inforos
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Ukrainian presidential election: the Zelensky phenomenon

The possibility of Volodymyr Zelensky winning is the product of a perfect storm

Ukrainian presidential election: the Zelensky phenomenon

Ahead of Ukraine’s upcoming presidential election first round on March 31st, the comedian and TV-personality Volodymyr Zelensky remains the leading candidate in opinion-polls. According to results of a poll published by the Kiev-based SOCIS research-company yesterday, 20.46% of Ukrainians favour Zelensky, with incumbent Petro Poroshenko second on 13.25% and Yulia Tymoshenko trailing with 9.5% support.

For a start, there are reasons to be skeptical about the veracity of this poll. Two weeks ago, other polls had Zelensky leading with between 22% and 27% of preferences, with Tymoshenko polling second, very marginally ahead of Poroshenko. Seeing as this recent poll is published by SOCIS, a Kiev-based organization, and the coercive machinery of government has been increasingly used against the media-sector in Ukraine in recent years, we have to suspect that the SOCIS-poll involves at least some level of methodological bias in favour of Poroshenko, and perhaps even a degree of outright fabrication. Pre-election polls influence momentum. For that matter, we cannot discount the possibility that there will be widespread vote-rigging on election-day.

Another factor is that, while both Zelensky and Tymoshenko, if elected, would seem likely to enter into meaningful negotiations with Russia – Zelensky has described negotiations as “inevitable” – Tymoshenko remains probably the Kremlin’s preference, because of her depth of political experience pre-crisis and her track-record of fruitful negotiations with the Russian government during her tenure as Ukrainian prime minister. Ultimately, Poroshenko has spent the past 5 years afraid of right-wing nationalists and paramilitaries, and has therefore effectively allowed them to determine the Ukrainian government’s Donbass-policy through their positions in the Verkhovna Rada’s parliamentary committee on law-enforcement. This has had appalling humanitarian consequences for the people of Donbass, with at least 20,000 civilians killed since spring 2014, mostly because of the Ukrainian army’s use of artillery against residential areas.

It is plausible that a figure such as Tymoshenko, with a deeper level of political experience and a more heavyweight track-record, might be able to consolidate power to an extent which would enable her to at least moderate the Donbass-policy. For those with an interest in maintaining perpetual political instability in Ukraine as a means of presenting geo-strategic challenges to Russia, these factors make Tymoshenko the least favourable choice.

For those hitherto unfamiliar with Zelensky, he is a comedian with no previous political experience, and he plays the president of Ukraine in the TV-comedy “Servant of the People.” The show centres upon a schoolteacher who becomes Ukrainian president after a video of him ranting against government corruption goes viral. One year ago, a political party with the same name – “Servant of the People” – was registered in Ukraine, and Zelensky is the new party’s presidential nominee.

However, it would be excessively hasty to see either Zelensky’s candidacy or his position in opinion-polls as merely protests. To the extent that the Zelensky-phenomenon is a deliberate collective self-parody on the part of the Ukrainian public, it is an almost-cosmic self-parody, but still quite a sober one. Through this self-parody, a certain significant sub-set of Ukrainians signal their preparedness to see the absurdity of Ukraine’s social, economic and political situation in the clear light of day. This indicates a certain maturity, a refreshing absence of wishful thinking.

In addition, we might interpret Zelensky’s current leading position in opinion-polls as the product of a certain kind of astute calculation made by some Ukrainians. Every other significant candidate in the field, in practical terms at least, is an instrument of great power geo-politics. Poroshenko represents a dead end, a continuation of the conflict in Donbass and antagonism toward Russia, which makes him an instrument of American policy.

Tymoshenko represents the best hope for some semblance of social and political stabilization in Ukraine, which coheres with Russian interests. Through their support for Zelensky, Ukrainians are signalling that they are simply tired of Ukraine’s domestic politics operating as a manifestation of great power geo-politics.

Neither Poroshenko’s domestic supporters nor his Atlanticist backers think it realistic that he can come in first on March 31st, but a second round run-off is inevitable. The Poroshenko-camp’s strategy from here is to guarantee that he finishes second on March 31st, and therefore remains in contention. This is why we should be skeptical about the veracity of yesterday’s SOCIS-poll, in which Poroshenko is purported to have overtaken Tymoshenko for 2nd place.

Were Poroshenko to be eligible to participate in the second round, we could expect the Ukrainian state’s propaganda-machine, and for that matter its coercive machinery, to go into overdrive in an attempt to ensure his re-election from there. The possibility of systematic vote-rigging cannot be discounted in either the first or second rounds.

To the same end, the peoples of Crimea, Donetsk and Lugansk (12% of Ukraine’s hypothetical “electorate”) have been disqualified from voting in the election, creating the self-contradictory implication that the Kiev junta sees these regions as part of Ukraine and not part of Ukraine at the same time. Quantum-politics.

If we were to look only at Poroshenko’s abysmal approval-ratings over the past number of years, then we would conclude that he had no chance whatsoever of being re-elected. But considering that he controls the machinery of state, and the potential for abuses of power which that entails, and also considering the he still receives Atlanticist support, we have to take the cynical view, and imagine it at least conceivable that he might still get over the line, by one means or another.

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