Ukraine Sends in the Clown
Most Ukrainian voters arguably know that the comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, whose only claim to fame up to now was playing a teacher-turned-president in a popular TV series, will not be the real-life president of their dreams. So why did nearly three-quarters of them back him?
KYIV – In the 2000s, The West Wing was everybody’s favorite television show about an aspirational US administration – one that fought terrorism without waging war on an entire region or religion, refused to trample on the rule of law, and generally made decisions that were in the country’s best interest. Many wished the show’s calm and collected fictional president, played by Martin Sheen, could replace America’s cowboy president, George W. Bush, and his war-mongering sidekick, Dick Cheney.
In a sense, that is exactly what is happening now in Ukraine. The comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, whose only claim to fame up to now was playing a teacher-turned-president in the popular TV series Servant of the People, won the presidency in a landslide earlier this month. But, far from the fantasy of an idealized president, this is yet another example of a distorted reality – all too familiar to Ukrainians – in which characters, not leaders, define politics.
Zelensky is far from the first charismatic non-politician to win political power in recent years. The most obvious example is the real-estate developer and reality-TV showman Donald Trump. But in Austria, Hungary, Italy, Russia, and elsewhere, characters have also used populist rhetoric to appeal to ordinary people who feel ignored by the elites. Another comedian, Beppe Grillo, co-founded Italy’s Five Star Movement, which is now the senior government party, though he stepped aside in January 2018, weeks before the election that brought his creation to power.