A co­me­dian leads the race as Ukraine heads to polls

The Times of India (Mumbai edition) - - TIMES GLOBAL - Oliver Car­roll

Ukraine’s democ­racy might be lack­ing in many im­por­tant re­gards – but on the par­tic­i­pa­tive prin­ci­ple, it ex­cels to the ex­treme.

On Fri­day, Kiev’s Cen­tral Elec­tions Com­mis­sion kicked off the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign by an­nounc­ing it had reg­is­tered a record 44 can­di­dates for the 31 March vote. This was over twice the num­ber that took part in the last elec­tions in 2014.

Fol­low­ing the long-time favourites — ex-PM Yu­lia Ty­moshenko and cur­rent Pres­i­dent Petro Poroshenko — came the name of a co­me­dian — Vladimir Ze­len­sky. With two months to go be­fore elec­tion day, polls fail to show a clear leader. No can­di­date has passed 20% of de­cided vot­ers, let alone the 50% re­quired to avoid a sec­ond round run-off. But the one man who has grown in pop­u­lar­ity is Ze­len­sky.

A num­ber of polls now sug­gest Ze­len­sky has over­taken Ty­moshenko to pole po­si­tion. De­pend­ing on the poll, 14-16% of the ac­tive elec­torate sug­gest­ing they will now vote A still from the sit­com ‘Ser­vant Of The Peo­ple’, which fea­tures Ze­len­sky as a teacher whose tirade against klep­toc­racy is filmed by a stu­dent and goes vi­ral, cat­a­pult­ing him to pres­i­dency for him. That rat­ing has shot up by 5% in the last month

Ze­len­sky’s clever cam­paign is based on en­gag­ing dis­af­fected vot­ers and looks to take ad­van­tage of the kinds of swings that brought Don­ald Trump and Brexit home.

His ad­van­tage is that peo­ple al­ready know him. He’s well re­mem­bered for a role in a se­rial called “Ser­vants of the Peo­ple”, where, he plays a teacher whose bat­tle against gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion pro­pels him to run for the pres­i­dency.

And the im­age of an out­sider, break­ing in politics is fu- elling his pop­u­lar­ity. De­spite his lack of political ex­pe­ri­ence, Ze­len­sky has shown solid political in­tu­ition, fo­cus­ing on pos­i­tive themes of “dreams” and “na­tional re­newal”. This plays in con­trast with the ag­gres­sive pa­tri­otic po­si­tions of Poroshenko, and equally ag­gres­sive pop­ulist po­si­tions of Ty­moshenko.

In­de­pen­dent ex­pert Vladimir Fe­senko sug­gests Ze­len­sky’s chances of win­ning may be as high as 25%. “This myth that he can come from the peo­ple to be­come pres­i­dent is very strong,” he says.

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