TV ENTERTAINER EMERGES AS FRONTRUNNER IN UKRAINE ELECTIONS
By Donnelly McCleland (with contribution by Mike Burnard)
Ukrainians awoke on April Fools’ Day to the reality of a comedian on the verge of taking over as commander in chief. The first-round victory for Volodymyr Zelensky, a 41-year-old entertainer who plays the president in a popular sitcom, served as a breath-taking rebuke by about 5 million voters of their entrenched political class. But just three weeks before a runoff election that could see Zelensky ascend to the presidency of one of Europe’s largest and most geopolitically pivotal countries, it’s far from clear what kind of change his supporters are actually voting for. (Washington Post)
Disillusionment with traditional politics
Zelensky, a political novice, is currently firmly in the lead with just over 30 percent of the vote in the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election, according to preliminary results on Monday [1 April]. He won more votes than the second and third-place finishers — incumbent president Petro Poroshenko and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko — combined. If these preliminary results hold, Zelensky will face Poroshenko in the 21 April runoff.
According to The Economist: “Mr Zelensky, a man with no political experience but with huge popularity as an entertainer, stepped onto the political centre-stage to expose the failures of Ukrainian rulers who may have experimented with various costumes and roles, but invariably represented dubious oligarchic interests for much of Ukraine’s post-Soviet history.” Despite a relatively low voter turnout of around 60 percent, those that did vote seemed to indicate a deep disillusionment with their traditional political elite. Ukrainian voters appear to be tired of empty promises, stalled reforms, an ailing economy, and the ongoing war against separatists in the country’s Donbass region.
Mr Poroshenko campaigned under the slogan of “Army. Language. Faith”. He appealed to the more nationalist-minded western Ukraine, largely ignoring the Russian-speaking east and south of the country. As a result, he appears to have become a highly divisive figure.
Zelensky’s unconventional approach
In contrast to Mr Poroshenko’s divisive approach, Russian-speaking Zelensky has been quite vague regarding his policies and has picked up votes across the country, not least among Russian-speakers. He also followed a rather unconventional approach, avoiding political rallies and TV debates and instead opted for concerts and stand-up comedy acts, giving two shows a day—one free, and one paid. He is said to have even made money on ticket sales, unlike some of his rivals who had to resort to paying people to attend their rallies. He also made extensive use of social media, with a particular focus on Instagram, with short video blogs and appeals to his audience.
According to one of Zelensky’s business partners, the idea of turning his TV show into reality was planted in his mind by Mr Poroshenko’s analysts who, two years ago, measured the actor’s ratings only to discover that he was the most popular choice. According to The Economist, beneath the apparent showmanship, Zelensky is backed by cool-headed lawyers and business partners who run a tight ship.
Zelensky has pitched himself as a morally upstanding pragmatist who can take on corruption and end the war with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. He has big dreams for Ukraine, including: an all-out effort to end the war; more opportunities for direct democracy (including referendums); returning trust and respect to the courts; arresting the economic decline and ensuring that Ukraine provides for its needs at the expense of its own energy resources. In a quote from his election programme: “Every child has the right to accumulate a part of the state’s realisation of natural goods in his account. After attaining adulthood, the child will receive these savings as his own starting capital.”
Key to his dream of a better Ukraine is dealing with corruption where those who are convicted of corruption will have their property confiscated and face a lifelong prohibition from holding public office. He also addresses concerns such as healthcare and education.
Analysts warn that Zelensky’s idealised image could quickly collide with the realities of Ukraine’s murky political system. “He can’t imagine how hard this system is to break,” said Ukrainian political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko (in The Washington Post). “He probably thinks like a film director . . . and real life is much more complicated.”
FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
The history of Christianity in Ukraine dates back to the earliest centuries of the history of Christianity, to the Apostolic Age, with mission trips along the Black Sea, including a legend of Saint Andrew ascending the hills of Kiev. It has remained the dominant religion in the country since its acceptance in 988 AD by Vladimir the Great (Volodymyr the Great), who brought it from Byzantine Crimea and instituted it as the state religion of medieval Kievan Rus’ (Ruthenia), with the metropolitan see in Kiev. Today, nearly 80% of Ukraine’s population confess to be to be Christian (Wikipedia)
Although separated into various Christian denominations, most Ukrainian Christians share a common faith based on Eastern Christianity. 71% of all Ukrainian Christians belong to the Orthodox or Catholic Church, while 6% would be Protestant or independent.
Proverbs 29:2 says: “When the righteous increase, the people rejoice, but when the wicked rule, the people groan.” Ukraine’s choice of this political novice seems to clearly indicate a “groaning” nation yearning for righteous governance. As with a large percentage of Ukrainians in general, many Christians in Ukraine are hoping that victory for political outsider Volodymyr Zelensky could herald the start of something new and fresh. But the challenge will be two-fold.
Firstly, should Zelensky succeed in the runoff on 21 April, he will need much prayer and godly wisdom to address Ukraine’s many challenges. Secondly, that the political consequences of an unconventional candidate will not further divide an already polarised Christian community. A strong Christian Ukraine could leave a strong Christian footprint in the region, but a divided Church will have little influence.
- For the Lord to direct the outcome of the elections
- For the elected leader to seek the best for the people of Ukraine
- For the Church to move towards greater unity despite social divisions in the country