Ukrainian ‘Ronald Reagan’ – OpEd


One week ago, on April 21, presidential elections took place in the largest European country Ukraine (not including Russia). In the second round (like in the first one), the winner was a political rookie Volodymyr Zelensky.

Volodymyr Zelensky with a lack of political experience turned out to be a serious competitor to his opponents. Shortly before the start of the electoral race, nobody in Ukraine would expect such a political debut. However, Zelensky can hardly be called a “new face” in the literal sense of the word; he has long been well known to Ukrainian voters, but not as a statesman — at least a real one.

In the role of a politician, namely in the role, Zelensky had already found himself. The comedian played the main role in the popular sitcom “Servant of the People” (subsequently Zelensky’s party name). In the show Zelensky appears to viewers as the Ukrainian president. The main character – an ordinary high school teacher Vasyl Holoborodko (V. Zelensky) rejecting social injustice in a twist of fate becomes the Head of State.

Popular “Servant of the People” is a three-season political show remotely resembling legendary “House of Cards” with Kevin Spacey. “House of Cards” was not a first show of such genre (earlier there had been “West Wing” and other similar series), but it was “House of Cards” that got unprecedented audience ratings and encouraged producing political series all over the world. Politics entered cinema, cinema entered politics.

Unlike the famous American TV-project, the Ukrainian “Servant of the People” is a pure comedy in which halls of power are filled with superb humor. A prophetic phrase “The story of the next president” was chosen as a tagline of the movie.

In the worldwide electoral practice, the example of Volodymyr Zelensky is not unique. In democracies, the popularity of a candidate is a component of his political capital, sometimes a decisive one. Many Canadian politicians starred in movies in their time. An actor background brought “image dividends” to political careers of parliamentarians: Tyrone Benskin, Jean Lapointe, magnificent Andrée Champagne and others. Former Member of Parliament Tina Keeper in her maiden speech focused on her acting career: “As an actor, I was lucky enough to be a part of one of Canada’s most successful television series. North of 60 was a CBC series that ran for six seasons and focused, for the first time in Canada, a dramatic series on an aboriginal community”.

In the neighboring United States, there are also many politicians who changed their artistic stage for a political one. A major example is the 38th Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger.

And of course, the most famous actor-politician was Ronald Reagan, twice elected president, enormously popular in the USA. It is unknown whether Zelensky watched the legendary movie “Kings Row” starring Ronald Reagan, but surely, he knows well how Reagan’s wit and assertiveness helped him to defeat such competitors as Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale.

Zelensky’s wit, assertiveness, self-confidence in public and on camera lost no chance to the incumbent president Petro Poroshenko in the presidential debates that took place at Kiev’s Olympic stadium.

However, it would be incorrect to attribute this success only to Zelensky’s personal charisma and self-presentation. Many of those who cast ballots for Zelensky voted rather against the incumbent president. Formerly popular Poroshenko who had come to power after the “Revolution of Dignity” in 2014 lost credibility and support of most of his electorate. Incomes of the people continue to decline while taxes increase. The peace that Poroshenko had promised to bring in 30 days was not established. IMF loans for economic recovery are plundered by local oligarchs.

Against this backdrop, voting for Zelensky as an alternative gives the Ukrainian people hope for change. One of the first laws that Zelensky has promised to adopt would be the law abolishing immunity of the members of parliament, the executive branch and judges. One of the key objectives of his future administration would be a fight against corruption in the country. In his economic program, Zelensky has proposed tax reduction that would boost the economy (one more similarity with the US President Ronald Reagan who held tax reduction as a part of his economic policy that went down in history as “Reaganomics”). It remains to be seen whether Mr. Zelensky is able to deliver on all these promises.

*Neil Karpenko, PhD

Neil Karpenko

Neil Karpenko, PhD, Ukraine’s history and politics researcher residing in Toronto. Contributing author to Haaretz, The Hill Times and Morning Star

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