Why a new era of anti-politics will probably help a TV comedian win Ukraine’s presidential election

Mary Dejevsky
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Why a new era of anti-politics will probably help a TV comedian win Ukraine’s presidential election

The nearer the train comes to Kharkiv on its five-hour journey east from Kiev, the more national politics is replaced in the conversations buzzing around me by the daily rounds of work, family and making do. Ukraine might be only days away from one of the most extraordinary twists to be visited on any post-Soviet state via the ballot box, but its second city offers few signs that an election campaign is even in progress, let alone that Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian who plays a fictional president on television, could be about to trounce the sitting president for real.

There are almost none of the competing billboards that adorn main roads around the capital. You won’t see the current president, Petro Poroshenko, urging voters to “Think…” – just that one word on a quasi-regal purple background – before going to the polls on Sunday. Nor will you see the cleverly controversial poster showing Poroshenko face to face with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, that says “21 April – a decisive choice”, in other words, “Vote for Zelensky, get Putin”.

Nor, in hours of walking around Kharkiv, have I seen more than a couple of Zelensky’s trademark green posters (his name means green), forecasting “the end of the old era”, though one battered door betrayed traces of half a dozen Zelensky stickers that someone had tried to peel off. The atmosphere is similar on local television: you are more likely to learn about plans to improve the roads (not before time) and stem water leaks, than to hear about the election.

Which does not mean that it is not an issue; it is: the turnout in Kharkiv in the first round on 31 March was almost 70 per cent, compared with barely 50 per cent in the first round five years ago. Nor does it mean Kharkiv’s voters are at odds with the national picture. Like most of Ukraine’s urban voters, they placed Zelensky top with somewhat more (36 per cent) than the 30 per cent he received nationwide.

But there is a reticence about politics in the city, with good reason. A university and industrial centre with a population of 1.4 million, Kharkiv lies at today’s fault line between Ukraine’s east and west. It is only 20 miles away from the Russian border, and you can reach the Donbass, where the simmering war with Russian-backed rebels is still claiming lives, in just four hours. Russia is at once friend and foe.

While the first-round results nationally gave President Poroshenko second place (with 17 per cent of the vote), Kharkiv gave the most pro-Russian candidate, Yuriy Boiko, second place, with a substantial 26 per cent. Poroshenko, with 9 per cent, was third.

Not only is Kharkiv not, to put it mildly, Poroshenko’s town, it came perilously close to joining the rebel regions after Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from the presidency in 2014. Had it done so, Ukraine would have been split in two, with nationwide civil war a real possibility. In the event, some adroit changing of sides by the mayor of Kharkiv, some urgent intervention from forces loyal to Kiev, and some possibly murkier oligarch involvement kept Kharkiv in the fold. But the city was – and remains – almost evenly split over the events of five years ago, with any resolution incomplete.

The avoidance of politics is one sign of the unease, with a warning from the Ukraine security services to be found on some central bus stops reading “Let’s keep our city peaceful. If you hear about any anti-state activity, ring 0800…” etc. There is a very visible security presence in public places and at transport hubs, and the war in the east feels much closer, not just geographically, than in Kiev. You see groups of young recruits in uniform, and some teenagers sport military “chic”, with faux-camouflage jackets and caps. Volunteers collect contributions in cash and kind, under banners emblazoned “All-out for victory”.

Kharkiv has mercifully avoided war – this time. Bombed and occupied by German forces during the Second World War, the city well knows what that means. But its economy has suffered grievously from the loss of trade with Russia, and it has struggled to cope with the influx of refugees. No wonder politics has become something of a forbidden zone.

All of which helps to explain why Zelensky’s anti-politics pitch, with its can-do promise of change, goes down so well here. But there are other elements, too. Zelensky has a particular appeal for young voters, and Kharkiv has a big student population. Plus his TV series Servant of the People, where he plays a small-town teacher propelled to the presidency, is filmed mostly in Russian. With Kiev trying to impose a one national language policy, Russian speakers find this reassuring – and not only in Kharkiv.

That Zelensky could be a unifying candidate in a divided country was confirmed by the pattern of first-round voting. Poroshenko prevailed in western Ukraine, while Boiko won in the east closest to the conflict zone. But the bulk of the map was Zelensky’s green, and that is, polls suggest, how sentiment has stayed. Latest polls of voting intention give Zelensky a massive, 72-24, advantage, with a slightly earlier poll among those “certain” to vote, running 60-40 in Zelensky’s favour.

Many (including me) thought that the second round could be close, as voters worried about a novice in the top job, or that “dirty tricks” of whatever sort might trigger a late “surprise”. So far, though, any incidents have been isolated and small. In particular, no one has detected any Russian – or US – intervention (and it will not be for want of looking). Antisemitic slurs against Zelensky have mostly been avoided, while claims that he is merely the frontman for the exiled banking oligarch, Ihor Kolomoyskyi, have either been already factored in, or simply failed to stick.

Perhaps in response to the huge gap in the polls, Poroshenko has noticeably changed his approach. From formal rallies designed to capitalise on his presidential authority, he has switched to smaller, more conversational events. He has reshuffled his team. What is more, in a dramatic U-turn, he has accepted Zelensky’s terms for a televised debate in the showbiz venue that is his opponent’s natural habitat.

Does he really still hope that his experience and gravitas can still carry the day against a challenger who admits he has neither? It is a long shot, but Poroshenko could be forgiven for thinking he deserves some points for at least keeping Ukraine’s show on the road for five years, against considerable odds. He’s achieved visa-free travel for Ukrainians to the EU, the autonomy of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church, and more defence support from the west. Surely that must be worth something?

But it is already very late for voters to rethink their choice, and to bank on Zelensky’s naivety deterring voters disregards the extent to which political innocence is part of his appeal. In Kharkiv, where the Soviet-era infrastructure is crumbling and high-profile projects are stalled for lack of money, dissatisfaction with the status quo runs high.

In his latest commercial, Zelensky leads a crowd of cheerful young Ukrainians towards a pedestrian crossing. The little red man on the traffic light soon turns green – Zelensky’s green – and the TV star and his citizen band stride across. That is surely how he hopes it will be on Sunday – and Poroshenko, to his credit, seems reconciled to defeat. Such a clean, decisive and democratic change could be part of the tonic a jaded Ukraine badly needs. If it comes with a dash of humour, well, Ukraine could do with that, too.