Given Volodymyr Zelensky’s landslide victory in Ukraine’s presidential election, in which he won 73% of the vote, it appears at first glance that he has a very impressive democratic mandate. However, it is necessary to break this election-result down in context before we try to address the question, what exactly does Zelensky’s democratic mandate enable him to do?
As Zelensky has won this presidential election without ever having laid out a concrete political program, Ukraine’s electorate was not in essence voting “for” anything in particular. However, Zelensky himself implicitly admitted as much during his campaign, and even managed to render the absence of any concrete political program into a virtue. Prior to Sunday’s vote, when addressing the incumbent Petro Poroshenko, Zelensky told him “I am not your opponent. I am your judgment.”
This succinct statement contained innumerable layers of meaning. Those 9 words contain so much densely-packed meaning that they must be one of the best poetic couplets which I’ve seen in the past several years.
Firstly, sentiments such as this relieved Zelensky of the obligation to ever articulate a concrete political program, which was very savvy campaign-strategy. It enabled Zelensky to campaign exclusively on the basis of Poroshenko’s disastrous record in office.
Secondly, by framing himself not as a political agent in himself, but merely as an instrument of the public’s disgust for Poroshenko, Zelensky guaranteed that voting for him would make the ordinary Ukrainian feel empowered. If there is one feeling which the ordinary poverty-stricken Ukrainian needs to sustain them in their daily grinding struggle for survival, then that is a feeling of empowerment.
Thirdly, the wording of Zelensky’s remark – “I am not your opponent. I am your judgment” – was an example of political postmodernism at its finest. He was admitting “I am not an actual person. I don’t really exist. I’m a character in a TV-show. You all know that, right?”
The implications of this are almost Christological. On one level, the New Testament is a work of comedy, insofar as the incarnated deity, who appears in the historical shape of a Jewish man, is always telling us ironic little jokes about himself, always hinting at his non-existence, hinting that his existence is in itself merely our existential project.
The Biblical Christ asks his disciples “Who do men say that I am?,” but he never affirms that any of their answers are correct or incorrect. He’s an everyman. He embodies OUR ordinary human subjectivity, and is an idealized projection of it – that’s why he’s important.
The parallels are unmistakable when a political candidate who, like the central character of the New Testament, is also a Jewish comedian with a highly self-ironic attitude, speaks to a Christian nation and tells them:
“Hint, hint. I don’t really exist – I am simply a projection of your frustrations, your alienation.”
Historically, other Jewish comedians during the late 20th century slipped this Christological subtext into their stand-up routines. Andy Kaufman used to tell his audiences “There’s no such thing as the real me.” This appeals to very deep impulses.
As a campaign-strategy, it was really quite an ingenious example of “political technology.” Zelensky must have had one or two theologians on his campaign-team. Very deep. Very cunning.
But this opens the question, considering that the Ukrainian electorate has knowingly voted for “a nothing,” a candidate-shaped vacuum, then what is the new president-elect actually empowered to do?
Ukrainians’ realization that Poroshenko represented a dead end was clear. On that basis, we must interpret Zelensky’s 73% vote as a democratic mandate to change something, even if he himself concretely proposed almost nothing. So how does this candidate-shaped vacuum, who admits implicitly that he doesn’t really exist, bring the dead end itself to an end?
From a Russian perspective, and from the perspective of those for whom humanitarianism is a primary concern, the first practical question is whether or not Zelensky’s landslide-victory is actually a democratic mandate to try to improve the situation in Donbass. The ordinary Ukrainian voter is perfectly well aware that, for as long as the conflict in Donbass continues, it will have appalling humanitarian consequences for people on both sides.
While the humanitarian consequences for the population of Donbass are immediate and direct, the draining-away of an already-bankrupt country’s economic resources in order to prosecute a futile war will continue to result in perpetual economic misery for Ukrainians themselves. Ukrainians understand that, for very practical economic reasons, social conditions cannot improve for the ordinary Ukrainian until they also improve for the people of Donbass.
So in delivering such a clear “no”-vote to the social, economic, political and military dead end which Poroshenko came to represent, has the Ukrainian electorate handed Zelensky a mandate to enter into meaningful peace-negotiations concerning Donbass?
A further practical question is, even if we decided that Zelensky has been handed such a democratic mandate, whether or not the right-wing extremist and paramilitary elements which make up the Verkhovna Rada’s parliamentary committee on law-enforcement will cede control of the Donbass-policy.
A key element in Poroshenko’s dead end formula was that he was cowed by those political extremists. Poroshenko himself was also a passive “nothing,” a candidate-shaped vacuum which ultimately degenerated into merely an instrument of the extreme right, which he feared, and of the Atlanticist destabilization-agenda.
So, the question is then whether or not his successor, who at least shows more ironic self-awareness than Poroshenko did in being a candidate-shaped vacuum, a nothing, but who lacks any level of political experience, can actually achieve anything against the political forces in Kiev, Lvov, and Washington which are stacked against peace.