Why Zelenskyi won

Source: The babel 

Featured, Ukraine

Article by: Bohdan Ben

Comedian Volodymyr Zelenskyy received 73% of votes in the second round of Ukrainian presidential elections on 21 April, despite all the efforts of incumbent President Petro Poroshenko to rebound and innovations in his campaign since the first round on 31 March. The reason is that Zelenskyy’s de-facto campaign started as early as 2015, which is when the film “Servant of the People” where Zelenskyy plays the role of a school teacher who by the will of fate became the real president of Ukraine, while his rise to fame started much earlier, in 2004. It wasn’t his political, but cultural role over the last 20 years which made this comedian familiar and easy to understand for the majority, unlike Poroshenko with his patriotic rhetoric. Additionally, simple technologies such as channeling anxiety, populist promises, and virtualization of the candidate helped unite opposite social and ideological groups around Zelenskyy. Ukraine has elected a virtual president, who is yet to become specified in reality.

“Draw your own candidate”

The first striking fact is that, according to Iryna Bekeshkina, director of the Fund “Democratic Initiatives,” 37% of Zelenskyy’s electorate support Ukraine’s membership in NATO while another 37% support a neutral status for the country. Another 8% are in favor of closer ties with Russia. There is a clear geographical distribution: those who support NATO membership are mainly from western Ukraine, while the neutrals are mainly from the South-East. Yet, all of them voted for Zelenskyy in the second round of presidential elections.

“Zelenskyy united the country” was one of the mottos of his campaign. Previous elections were mostly about pro-Russian and pro-Western candidates and were clearly marked by an east-west divide, in which historical and linguistic divisions lines can be traced. Zelenskyy was supported by the majority of voters in all oblasts except for Lviv Oblast in the west.

Results of the second round of Ukrainian presidential elections in 2019 by district election commissions. Green: Zelenskyy; red: Poroshenko. Source: The UNZ review

This was the second presidential election in Ukraine when a candidate was supported throughout the whole country, without a clearly marked east-west divide. The first time was, ironically, in 2014, when Poroshenko had taken first place in all Ukrainian oblasts, sans occupied Crimea and Donbas

However, the “unity of the country” alleged by the Zelenskyy campaign falls apart upon a closer look. During the campaign, different target groups were targeted with contradictory messages. Subsequently, at times Zelenskyy’s voters support contradictory messages from his campaign. The sample of the main messages is as follows:

We will go towards NATO and the EU, but we should decide whether we will go at a referendum. We should lower taxes for business but raise social expenditures. Not Ukrainians will go to work in Poland, but Poles will come to Ukraine. And, also, closer ties with Russia are required because the Russian economy is important for Ukraine. We can’t give up Donbas and Crimea but, for now, we can’t talk about Crimea, and the main task is for soldiers to stop shooting and return home. Finally, judicial reform, e-government, and detention of corrupt officials are important to modernize the country.

It’s obvious that if half of these contradictory goals are achieved, the other half should be abstained from. It is inevitable that if Zelenskyy starts any serious discussion and tells about his policies in detail, a part of his electorate will be dissatisfied. And after any real decision, the number of the dissatisfied will grow. Therefore, Zelenskyy’s support was artificially inflated and, in order not to lose it, he abstained from debates throughout the whole election period. Although an event called “debates” was held on Olympiyskyi stadium in Kyiv on 19 April with Poroshenko and Zelenskyy, it contained no discussion about policies.

What is particularly interesting, Zelenskyy used a tactic which Oksana Zabuzhko, famous Ukrainian writer and public intellectual, described as “draw your own candidate.” Zelenskyy asked his supporters to write questions that he should ask from Poroshenko, as well as to write the main priorities for his program. He portraits himself as a people’s candidate and actively uses participatory practices in his campaign. Being a pure form, virtual hero communicating through photos in Instagram and short film-style videos, Zelenskyy encouraged everybody of his supporters to fill this form with whatever they want.

Oksana Zabuzhko, a famous Ukrainian writer, tells about this technology thus:

“Everyone was given colored pencils, like children in kindergarten. ‘Draw your own president.’ And that whole kindergarten, inhabited by millions of people with very different education and social backgrounds, all this kindergarten is drawing… What I’m the most anxious about in this situation is the cynical exploitation of not only trust but human emotional resources. Here’s the example of how people are perceived as. And I hear, let’s say, an offscreen laugh of scriptwriters who have conjured all this plot for stupid Ukrainians…”

Guided anxiety

It’s well known that uniting people against a common enemy is easier than uniting them for a particular positive idea. This tactic was used by Zelenskyy at the debates on Olimpiyskyi National Stadium on 19 April, as well as throughout the whole campaign.

Zelenskyy with his “script” at the debates on Olimpiyskyi National Stadium on 19 April 2019. Source: point

Zelenskyy participated in debates holding a sheet of paper with the title “My questions.” His opponents joked that this is a script for a comedian who can’t say something himself. Nonetheless, though we don’t know whether this script was written by Zelenskyy himself, or by his political technologists, it starts with the description of a general framework as follows:

“General framework: future president against the offender.

Scheme of answers:

1) The evaluation of the question with an indirect attack on Poroshenko.

2) Answer.”

During his whole campaign, Zelenskyy’s only offer for his voters, along with populist promises, was “new faces,” many of whom finally appeared to be former members of exiled ex-President Yanukovych party members. In fact, the campaign was basically criticism of Poroshenko’s failures, speculating on popular grievances. Zelenskyy’s team actively exploits such public opinions, knowing well that the current authorities are leading the anti-rating of Ukrainian politicians. “The end of the era…” of poverty/lies/greediness. This is what Zelenskyy’s team writes on their boards.

Oleksandr Danyliuk, a speaker from Zelenskyy’s team, told explicitly about this end of the previous era on ICTV channel, stressing that people are tired of hearing the same lies (unfortunately, without clear specification of what are these lies are about).

The most scandalous bord “The end” with only one word written and the incumbent president Poroshenko depicted while going away.

That anti-rating of Poroshenko and his political companions was created by the joint efforts of civil society, oligarchic media, and Russian propaganda which unintentionally united in criticizing different aspects of Poroshenko’s policies. Often, the criticism was fair, but in other cases, it was unjust or unproven. However, it created a negative image of “corrupt and lying” Poroshenko that any of his statements, regardless of their content, were perceived negatively a priori.

Cultivating anger

The problem of Poroshenko was that he tried to play a professional and not populist politician in Ukraine — which is a rare phenomenon for contemporary Ukrainian politics. He didn’t speak about gas prices, tariffs, and taxes at all because all these issues don’t belong to the president’s responsibilities. Poroshenko discussed security and military issues, foreign policy. Also, he mentioned decentralization and judiciary reforms, for it was he who proposed laws about these reforms.

The two graphs above depict what is important for people as citizens of Ukraine and what is important for them personally. Poroshenko’s messages mentioned neither corruption issues nor the growth of prices and tariffs. Zelenskyy, on the other hand, speculated on all of these issues. It doesn’t really matter that, if elected, he would not have the power to solve these issues. Many people still confuse which institution is supposed to regulate tariffs and who is responsible for foreign policy. Generally, a politician can make promises about the government, parliament, and even courts on presidential elections to gain additional support.

As depicted in the diagram above, 40% of Ukrainians believe that the president is responsible for anti-corruption policy and 34% believe that he is responsible for the judiciary. In reality, he influences these spheres only indirectly. Yet, from the point of political technology, Zelenskyy wins when he says that he will imprison corrupt officials, including Poroshenko himself, who failed to do this.

The last important thing is that such populist messages can be used only once. All politicians running for the presidency were old figures, having more than a 50% disapproval rate of their decisions (Poroshenko had 79%). If they said anything about punishment for corruption, it would usually sound ridiculous. Zelenskyy was the only new face, entirely “clean” to promise anything and expect that people will believe him. He was lucky to hold a monopoly, portraying himself as the main fighter against corruption and for the people’s will.

Cultural industry

This is a more global and strategic reason for the current success of Zelesnkyi. Yet, it explains why Poroshenko’s main messages about security, independence of the Ukrainian church from Moscow, language, and other issues of national self-sufficiency were not so important for the majority of society. In reality, national, classical, or even simply Ukrainian popular culture was limited to several minor groups of intellectuals. Generally, since the beginning of the 2000s, Ukrainian TV channels and radio were occupied by Russian showbiz and Russian-language songs.

It may be a coincidence, but active penetration of Russian producers and stars into Ukrainian informational space started just after Putin’s coming to power in 2000. Zelenskyy’s humoristic project “Kvartal 95” was a part of this wave. The project was in the Russian language, humiliating Ukrainian national culture as well as abusing Ukrainian politics. The whole generation grew up on these messages, with a cynical attitude to politics, without national consciousness or any feeling of responsibility.

Zelenskyy and his companion joking about Ukraine’s will to join EU. 12 April 2014. Source: screenshot from Youtube

Only after the Euromaidan Revolution did the state start to slowly replace this low-quality cultural industry by Ukrainian products. However, five years are not enough to change what was implanted for 20 years, and also before, in the Soviet era.

Taking this aspect into account, it would be not correct to say that Zelenskyy is a new face in Ukrainian politics. Though being in the shadows, he was in a funny opposition to all governments at least from 2003. This opposition is vividly illustrated in the last scenes of Zelenskyy’s pre-election film “Servant of the People” where he executes the parliament. Such a scenario is what many people desire – to kill all “corrupt” politicians or send them somewhere to a prison. Of course, it’s the government that’s responsible for the income of the average Ivan or Marichka, not them themselves. On this ground, guided anger was used by Zelenskyy in his campaign. However, since it is not easy to control that anger, it may turn back against the new president when people understand how few of Zelenskyy’s promises can actually be carried out.

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Edited by: Alya Shandra

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