The Slatest

Comedian Known for Playing President on TV Easily Wins Ukraine’s Presidential Election

Ukrainian president-elect Volodymyr Zelensky speaks to the media during press conference at his campaign headquarters in Kiev on April 21, 2019.
Ukrainian president-elect Volodymyr Zelensky speaks to the media during press conference at his campaign headquarters in Kiev on April 21, 2019.
GENYA SAVILOV/Getty Images

A comedian with no hint of political experience besides playing a president on television easily won Ukraine’s presidential election. Exit polls gave Volodymyr Zelensky more than 70 percent of the vote, leading incumbent Petro Poroshenko to concede defeat. The victory for Zelensky, 41, means a man with no political experience now leads a country that is at the center of the West’s standoff with Russia regarding the annexation of Crimea.

Speaking at his campaign headquarters in Kiev, Zelensky apperead to suggest other former Soviet states could follow Ukraine’s example to change politics as usual. “As long as I am not officially a president, I can say as a citizen of Ukraine to all countries of the post-Soviet Union: Look at us—anything is possible,” he said.

The election of Zelensky is seen as a rebuke not just of Poroshenko but also of the country’s entire political establishment. It also appeared to send a message that Ukrainians care more about their internal problems than any threat from Russia. But Zelensky has said his top priority would be to secure the release of around 170 members of Ukraine’s military who are being held in the east or in Russia. Beyond a promise to end the war in the eastern Donbass region and fight against corruption, Zelensky has been vague about his plans. “Since there is complete uncertainty about the economic policy of the person who will become president, we simply don’t know what is going to happen and that worries the financial community,” Serhiy Fursa, an investment banker at Dragon Capital in Kiev, tells Reuters.

Before the election, Zelensky was best known for his role in the long-running show Servant of the People in which he plays a teacher who unexpectedly wins a presidential election after students post one of his angry rants about corruption online and it goes viral. Throughout the campaign he used his on-screen character to his advantage as he spoke broadly about combating corruption without offering many specifics about how he would run his government. “This feels like a massive protest vote,” writes BBC’s Jonah Fisher. Supporters acknowledged that while they may not believe all of Zelensky’s promises, at least he represents change. “I have grown up under the old politicians and only have seen empty promises, lies and corruption,” a 22-year-old who voted for Zelensky told the Associated Press. “It’s time to change that.”