There may not be a great deal to laugh about in Ukraine these days, but there’s a very good chance a comedian will win Sunday’s presidential runoff election, thanks in part to a key trait of a good comic — timing.
Ukraine’s standard of living continues to decline, its fuel prices rise to record heights, political reforms disintegrate, corruption spreads unchecked and a war by Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country continues to flare while Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula remains occupied.
So who are Ukrainians counting on to lead them to a better place, since a suitable billionaire “reality” television star apparently could not be found? How about a 41-year-old millionaire comedian named Volodymyr Zelensky, star of the smash television series “Servant of the People,” now available on Netflix.
Like a certain well-known American politician, Zelensky relies heavily on social media postings to move his campaign forward, pointedly avoiding press conferences, news show interviews and prolonged serious dialogue.
On “Servant of the People,” Zelensky plays a Ukrainian history teacher upset with the sad state of affairs taking place in his country who gets recorded ranting about what needs to change, and how he would go about changing it. The recording goes viral and Zelensky’s corruption-hating character, Vasyl Holoborodko, gets elected president of Ukraine and thrust into a variety of unlikely situations.
The character resonated with Ukrainian voters with surprising strength. Earlier this year, Zelensky topped a field of candidates that included a former prime minister and the current president in Ukraine’s first round of presidential polling. Last week, he challenged the current president to a debate before a huge crowd at a soccer stadium, but only after first submitting to a drug test, which both candidates ended up taking and passing.
During the debate, the current president, chocolate billionaire Petro Poroshenko, questioned Zelensky’s ability to stand up to Vladimir Putin. Zelensky questioned Poroshenko’s inability to make progress in ending the war with Putin and his proxies during his five years as president.
“I’m not a politician, I’m just an ordinary person,” Zelensky told the president. “I am here as a result of your mistakes and unkept promises.”
Zelensky, now heavily favored to win Sunday’s election, arrived on his country’s political scene at just the right time, in just the right vehicle. While voters may not know what they expect him to deliver, they know it probably won’t be the reliably ineffective and corrupt status quo, and it might just be hope.
Here’s hoping that a comedian portraying a president in a sitcom can successfully make the transition to real life. He just might become the world’s best-loved former reality show president.