Ukraine: What Everyone Needs To Know by Serhy Yekelchyk:
All the calculations and strategies that these main players had developed for the campaign were confounded on New Year’s Eve, when the popular comedian Volodymyr Zelensky announced on television his intention to participate in the election. Zelensky represented the direct opposite of establishment candidates—he had zero political experience and the mien of an honest everyman. A successful entrepreneur, he rose to fame as the star of an unpretentious Russian-language comedy television show, but he also possessed the Charlie Chaplin–like charisma of a “little man” refusing to accept this world’s injustices. The latter came out clearly in a television series called Servant of the People, where Zelensky played a lowly history teacher who accidentally becomes the president and attempts to build a more equitable Ukraine. The runaway success of this series gave Zelensky and his supporters the idea of transitioning into politics, and early secret polling showed that he could do very well in an election. Zelensky’s open acknowledgment of being Jewish did not hurt his popularity at all, contradicting the stereotype of Ukrainian anti-Semitism.
By the beginning of March, Zelensky’s candidacy came to dominate the polls, leaving all others to fight over a place in the run-offs. Shrewdly, he and his advisors delayed until the last moment the release of any platform, which meant that voters ascribed to him the intentions of his popular television persona. Zelensky did not speak against the Ukrainian language and culture but downplayed such issues by stressing that peace and reforms had to take precedence. He managed to undercut his main rivals by attracting voters from across the ethno-linguistic spectrum—both Ukrainian-and Russian-speakers, who, for quite different reasons, felt disillusioned with Poroshenko and his traditional opponents. Meanwhile, Poroshenko had to use all his considerable powers as president and oligarchical owner of two television channels to secure second place in the race. He campaigned on the slogan, “The army, the language, and faith,” but even during the de facto war with Russia, such a narrowly national-patriotic program appealed to only a small sector of the electorate. Poroshenko’s unsuccessful attempt to introduce martial law after the Russians captured Ukrainian navy boats in the Strait of Kerch in November 2018 undermined his posture as commander-in-chief. Erupting just before the election, a corruption scandal over military acquisitions involving his longtime business partner, then serving as deputy chairman of the Council of National Security and Defense, made the president’s slogans about the army ring hollow.