Fiction to Reality in Ukraine’s Election Standoff

By Alexander Naumov

Remember the slogan “Underwood 2016” when we wondered if Frank from House of Cards could get things done in Washington? Ukrainians are deciding a similar question. If you have not been following the presidential election in Ukraine, now is a good time to start: the first round of votes on March 31 has reduced the number of candidates from 39 to two. And we might see the world’s first TV president come to real power in May.

Volodymyr Zelensky plays an honest teacher-turned-president on the TV show Servant of the People (available on Netflix and YouTube). He took nearly 30% of the first round vote. The second place, near 18%, belongs to the sitting president Petro Poroshenko. They have less than three weeks to come out on top, and it appears that fiction will be the most decisive factor for reality’s outcome.

“A joke is a joke, but I am the president”

Zelensky isn’t unique in running from comedy to populist politics. Yulia Tymoshenko, the opposition veteran in third place for president, gave TIME an explanation that is familiar to American and British voters since 2016: Zelensky’s supporters are “so disappointed, so unhappy with the system that they start looking for new ways out. And when they don’t find that, the rise of Zelenskies is like a protest, a response to the feeling of hopelessness.”

But no other candidate in modern history, Trump included, used such an articulated fictional platform to promote his real self. As his name is printed on the ballot, Zelensky’s character President Holoborodko is wooing voters through a third season of Servant of the People (titled ‘Election’) released just four days before the first round. In the show’s very beginning, Holoborodko preempts criticism in his inauguration speech by admitting that he has no experience, faces daunting problems, and will simply do his best – an example of inoculation theory in communication, presented by Josh Compton at our CARP 2019 conference. That was in 2015, and since then the TV president (spoilers ahead) jailed a corrupt prime minister, secured visa-free travel to the EU for Ukrainians, and got Crimea back.

In the original House of Cards, Francis Urquhart comments that Clausewitz was wrong for saying war is the continuation of politics by other means: “Politics? War? …there is no distinction.” Logically, we are used to seeing entertainment as the continuation of politics: think CBS casting Hillary Clinton to join Madam Secretary as herself. Yet Servant of the People illustrates a new phenomenon in political communication that flips the equation in Urquhart’s fashion: in 2019, politics is becoming an outgrowth of entertainment.

Those that point out Zelensky’s lack of a real political platform shouldn’t underemphasize the priming power of the Holoborodko story. On his cross-country tour, Zelensky’s most recognized teammates are fellow comics from the studio Quarter-95, who also play Holoborodko’s cabinet ministers. Even his party, registered last April and facing even more consequential parliamentary elections in October, is named Servant of the People.

Now what?

“I expect a fiercely fought campaign over the next three weeks with character assassination and ungentleman-like accusation made on both sides,” said a business commentator to the Financial Times in what I hope was a nod to the CARP Lab. It’s a very appropriate quote because, similar to Alexey Navalny in Russia, Zelensky has no government record and too vague a platform to attack. His inexperience so far provided the bulk of ammunition for salvos by Poroshenko and the rest. Predictably, Zelensky’s supporters retort that experience isn’t an asset in a government as corrupt as Poroshenko’s. Another bludgeoning stick in this election has been Putin, an omnipresent boogeyman that Poroshenko’s side incessantly tries to tie with anyone except Poroshenko.

Therefore, Zelensky’s entertainment character, as a comic in general and as President Holoborodko literally, is the clearest target for his critics to concentrate fire. Opponents and journalists have speculated about the nature of the actor’s relationship with his host TV channel’s owner, Ihor Kolomoisky, for months: like the Mueller investigation, it’s becoming old news. Furthermore, with a Poroshenko ally mired in a defense industry graft scandal since February, the president is in no place to judge guilt by association. One of Poroshenko’s strongest campaign themes and character traits is being a tough Commander-in-Chief. His weak share of votes by active troops on Ukraine’s eastern front, just 38.1% compared to 36.4% for Zelensky, is an indication that Poroshenko’s war creds will not get him over the top.

If President Holoborodko’s alter ego takes real power in May, the next task will be to fight for parliamentary seats in October, an electoral arena where Poroshenko, Tymoshenko, and other party stalwarts are dominant. But they will have to fight tooth and nail throughout this year to protect their relevance and credibility and clobber Zelensky’s character. Through a fictional president, he has already articulated a deeply historical, anti-establishment force best articulated by Oliver Cromwell in his speech to the Long Parliament: “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us be done with you!”

[Photo: Dealing with parliament on TV, screen grab from Servant of the People season 2 trailer]

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