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'An Electoral Maidan': Hope And Change, Ukrainian-Style, Vaults Zelenskiy Into Presidency

Volodymyr Zelensky reacts after the announcement of the first exit poll results in the second round of Ukraine's presidential election at his campaign headquarters.
Volodymyr Zelensky reacts after the announcement of the first exit poll results in the second round of Ukraine's presidential election at his campaign headquarters.

In the end, it was a demand for radical change and broad disappointment with the incumbent that vaulted a comedian who played Ukraine’s president on television into the real thing.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy rode these sentiments, political analysts and sociologists say, to what was shaping up to be an unprecedented landslide victory over President Petro Poroshenko in the country’s April 21 runoff vote.

“The absolute majority of Ukrainians again, just as they did five years ago, want radical political change. In that sense, this was a kind of Maidan -- but an electoral one,” Ukrainian political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko told RFE/RL, referring to the central Kyiv square at the heart of the 2013-14 protests that helped oust Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych and paved the way for Poroshenko’s election.

Exit polls and early ballot counts overnight gave Zelenskiy, a 41-year-old political novice, more than 70 percent of the vote, putting him on course for the largest margin of victory in a presidential poll in the history of modern Ukraine.

"These are very atypical data. As a rule, our elections were very competitive and such a result, such a margin, has never been seen,” sociologist Natalya Kharchenko told Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, following the release of the first exit polls.

Poroshenko, a two-time cabinet minister and 53-year-old confectionery tycoon seen as a compromise candidate in 2014, campaigned this time on his record as a wartime leader during the five-year conflict with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 13,000.

With Poroshenko’s campaign slogan -- “Army! Language! Faith!” -- he also highlighted Ukrainian worshipers' newfound independence from the Russian Orthodox Church and portrayed himself as a defender of the Ukrainian language.

But those issues proved to be less pressing for the Ukrainian electorate than economic concerns and a demand for greater efforts to combat endemic corruption, according to Kharchenko and Olha Onuch, an associate professor of politics at the University of Manchester who researches Ukraine.

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“The majority of Ukrainians do not particularly focus on language laws or focus on the religious aspect,” Onuch told RFE/RL. “This is not really speaking to them. It was bread-and-butter issues, it was survival, basic daily needs that aren’t being met, the everyday corruption that they face in almost every single aspect of life.”

‘Clear Instance Of Punishment’

Opinion polls had indicated that Zelenskiy would defeat Poroshenko soundly in the runoff, so the comedian's victory wasn’t exactly a surprise to anyone paying attention.

After winning the presidency in May 2014 with 54 percent of the vote, Poroshenko’s approval ratings with the public fell dramatically and stayed there, making his chances of defeating Zelenskiy slim even if he had run his campaign differently, said Fesenko, director of the Kyiv-based Penta Center for Political Studies.

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One survey last month showed that nearly half of voters would not vote for Poroshenko under any circumstances.

“It’s extremely difficult, and probably impossible, to overcome those voter attitudes,” Fesenko told RFE/RL.

Early exit-poll data indicated that Zelenskiy, a Russian-speaker who faced criticism for not speaking Ukrainian frequently enough during the campaign, garnered more support than Poroshenko not only in Ukraine’s predominantly Russian-speaking southeast, but throughout the country.

“It’s the first such election that featured not only the largest margin of victory between the two candidates, but also no regional divergence,” Kharchenko told Current Time.

“People are placing their hopes in him almost everywhere. They support him and are waiting for change,” she added.

'Lots Of Hopes'

While embracing his status as a political outsider, Zelenskiy, who said Poroshenko had congratulated him on his victory and offered his help, ran a campaign that was thin on policy specifics. Fesenko said Zelenskiy will face expectations from the electorate to introduce major changes almost immediately after taking office.

“Ukrainian voters...get disappointed quickly. It’s happened with every president from [Leonid] Kravchuk to Poroshenko. Vladimir Zelenskiy faces that risk as well,” Fesenko said.

Only one Ukrainian president since independence, Leonid Kuchma in 1999, has won reelection.

Ahead of parliamentary elections later this year, Zelenskiy “needs to show in the coming months that he truly wants radical changes,” Fesenko said.

Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadoviy, head of the parliamentary Self-Reliance party, told Current Time that Zelenskiy “embodies of lot of hopes” among the Ukrainian people, who will “expect a miracle” from him “as early as tomorrow.”

Sadoviy advised Zelenskiy to call early parliamentary elections -- something he had pledged to do should he defeat Poroshenko as part of a planned “renewal” of Ukraine’s governing class.

Poroshenko’s party, the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, currently holds the most seats in the Ukrainian parliament, and the outgoing president pledged in his concession speech on April 21 that he intended to stay in politics to “ensure that Ukraine does not change its course" toward integration with the European Union and NATO.

Precisely what his future role in Ukrainian politics might be remains uncertain. But Onuch of the University of Manchester said that the message voters sent on April 21 was crystal clear.

“For the Ukrainian electorate, this is a clear instance of punishment,” she said.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.