Ukraine Elects a Populist Celebrity, Following a Global Trend

Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy waves to supporters following the announcement of the first exit poll in the presidential election at his campaign headquarters in Kiev, Ukraine, April 21, 2019. (Viacheslav Ratynskyi/Reuters)
Electorates worldwide are preferring comics, athletes, and movie and TV stars to politicians.

‘The people want someone to articulate their rage for them,” says the fictional network programmer played by Faye Dunaway in the 1976 movie classic Network. She then unleashes on audiences a newscaster named Howard Beale, who electrifies the country with his manta “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

Increasingly, voters are plumping for reality-TV stars to express their anger and seek solutions to intractable problems. Donald Trump, who used his NBC show The Apprentice to catapult himself into the White House, is the most obvious example. But look at Ukraine: This nation of 44 million people just saw a comedian who plays a fictional Ukrainian president on TV win 73 percent of the vote and become, as of today, the president-elect.

Volodymyr Zelensky, a 41-year-old comedian, began his hit TV show Servant of the People in 2016. It’s the story of a humble schoolteacher who becomes a national sensation after a video of him delivering an impromptu rant against political corruption goes viral. He is quickly thrust into the role of a presidential candidate and wins amid voter despair that the political establishment is full of self-serving crooks.

He is elected on the promise that he’ll fight entrenched economic oligarchs and not be bought. But he tangles with the nation’s sluggish parliament, and in a dream sequence he imagines himself gunning down its members by firing two submachine guns Rambo-style into their ranks. In the show’s second season, Zelensky’s character resigns as president after rejecting an International Monetary Fund aid package, and then he wins an improbable reelection.

When Zelensky started his own real-life campaign last January, he was ridiculed for naming his new party “Servant of the People” after his own show’s title. His campaign videos even included footage of him from the fictional series. “People are voting for the plot of the show,” Ukrainian political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko told the Washington Post. “They want to bring the plot of the show to life.”

And Zelensky was happy to encourage that wish. “To some degree, maybe people really do have the feeling that the guy on screen and the guy in real life are one and the same person,” he told foreign journalists this month at a briefing in Kiev. “This might even be true, to some extent.”

Zelensky is a young, pro-Western entrepreneur, so there may be cause for hope that he can break the country’s domestic-policy gridlock and stand up to the neighboring Russians at the same time. But you wouldn’t know much about the details of his plans from his campaign, which was full of showmanship and light on specifics.

That seems to be the pattern when TV celebrities step off stage to run for office. Beppe Grillo, a famous Italian comedian, launched the radical centrist Five Star Movement a decade ago because he was furious at the corruption of entrenched elites in his country. “I don’t want to let my children live in this world,” he said at a rally in 2014 as he stood next to Nigel Farage, a leader in the U.K.’s Brexit movement. “That’s why I’m here and why I changed my job and also changed my mental structure to come here and not make you laugh, not to make jokes. I am here to speak to you seriously.”

Italians wound up taking Grillo very seriously. Even though he has stepped away from the leadership of the Five Star Movement, his disciples took over the Italian government last year in a coalition with a right-wing populist party.

The interest in electing “celebrity savior” figures to high office isn’t limited to the U.S. and Europe. Examples pop up on almost every continent.

In 2015, comedian Jimmy Morales used an anti-corruption platform to win election as president of Guatemala. Like Zelensky, he had played a fictional president. The 2007 film A President in a Sombrero featured Morales as a cowboy named Neto who accidentally tumbled into politics. In Peru, a popular actor named Salvador del Solar was named his country’s prime minister just last month.

The African nation of Liberia elected George Weah its president in 2017 after his remarkable career that saw him rise from the slums of the capital, Monrovia, to become an internationally recognized soccer star. Similarly, Pakistan has been ruled since last year by former cricket champion Imran Khan, who in 1992 led his country’s team to its only World Cup victory.

Given this track record of success, is it any wonder that Democrats got overheated with excitement last year when rumors spread that TV personality Oprah Winfrey might run for president? Consultants noted that Winfrey had almost universal name recognition and that she even had a 39 percent favorable rating among Republicans. “There’s only person whose name is a verb, an adjective, and a feeling,” actress Reese Witherspoon gushed. “And that is Oprah.” But the savvy Oprah quickly figured out just how quickly her star might dim if she entered the grubby world of politics — she declined to run.

Another problem she would have faced is that she doesn’t fit the mold of most successful celebrities in politics. They have projected anger at the status quo, not Oprah’s blend of optimism and soothing emotional balm.

Think Arnold Schwarzenegger, who muscled his way into the California governor’s office in 2003 with the theme song “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” by the hair metal band Twisted Sister. Or Silvio Berlusconi, the TV-network mogul and former singer, who three times served as prime minister of Italy by railing against the elite — of which he happened to be a card-carrying member.

Indeed, when it comes to populist politics, for now, it’s anger that seems to sell more than Reagan-style “Shining City on a Hill” optimism. As that executive in the eerily prescient Network explained to her staff: “I want angry shows. I don’t want conventional programming on this network. I want counterculture. I want anti-establishment.”

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