Ukrainian comedian’s election success is latest warning for politicians

Ukrainian comedian’s election success is latest warning for politicians

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By Yuliya Talmazan

When comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced at midnight on New Year’s Eve that he was running to be president of Ukraine, many pundits dismissed the move as a public relations stunt.

Zelenskiy, 41, is a household name in Ukraine — until recently, he starred in a hit television series as a corruption-averse history teacher who is elected the country’s leader. Now, the man who has no political experience and few clear policies appears to be on the verge of replacing the real-life incumbent.

Campaigning on little more than his charisma and a desire for change, he won the first round of the country’s presidential election last weekend.

Most opinion polls suggest he will beat President Petro Poroshenko by a considerable margin in the April 21 runoff.

Zelenskiy appears set to follow the trend of candidates and parties around the world who are coming out of nowhere to topple establishment figures.

Although the most notable is Donald Trump’s presidential win in 2016 — quickly morphing from a businessman and reality TV host to leader of the free world — there are plenty of other examples.

The Five Star movement, Italy’s largest ruling party, was founded by comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo, and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was an unknown lawyer before his appointment.

Zuzana Čaputová who was just elected Slovakia’s first female president was also an activist-lawyer and a political outsider. And even French President Emmanuel Macron, despite being involved in politics for some years, shocked Europe when he ousted the traditional parties with his En Marche! movement in 2017.

Social media has been key in allowing these interlopers to gain notoriety that would have been impossible even a decade ago, when traditional media acted as a de facto gatekeeper for most hopeful upstarts.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy on the set of “Servant of the People,” the TV series in which he plays Ukraine’s president, in February.Oksana Parafeniuk / for NBC News

“The media environment moves much more quickly and much more widely and these people can pick up traction very fast,” said Scott Lucas, a professor of politics and American studies at the University of Birmingham in England. “If you take advantage of the 21st century media, you’ve got free advertising.”

Zelenskiy has deployed this tactic with devastating effect for his opponents on the trail.

“We have one platform only — that’s the internet,” campaign team member Michael Fedorov, 28, told Reuters earlier this week.

When it comes to Zelenskiy’s policies, “his appeal is that of a blank check,” Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, said.

The comedian has been vague about what he stands for, and his image as “everyone’s hope for a better future” is a strategy that he needs to maintain to win the runoff, Trenin said.

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