The presidential elections in Ukraine on Sunday resulted in a landslide victory for Volodomyr Zelensky, a 41-year-old law student and comedian who in very short time established a new party and defeated the incumbent president since 2014, Petro Poroshenko, gaining 73 % in the runoff vote. Total voter turn-out was 62 %, well above the 42 % turnout in the presidential elections in North Macedonia also on Sunday.
The EU developed close relations to Poroshenko but tired of his stalling of necessary anti-corruption reforms and was quick to congratulate Zelensky to his victory. In an unusually warm letter (22 April), presidents Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker expressed their “appreciation of Ukraine’s strong attachment to democracy and the rule of law throughout the electoral process.”
While significant progress has been made in Ukraine since Ukraine’s “Revolution of Dignity” in 2014, much remains to be accomplished, according to their letter.
Despite his inexperience of politics, and avoiding questions from journalists during the election campaign, Zelensky was seen as untainted by corruption and supported by the majority of Ukrainians who wanted change and voted in protest against Poroshenko. Zelensky became popular when playing the president in a TV series by name “Servant of the people”, the same name as his party.
“The electorate clearly wanted to see a new face,” explains John Lough, an Associate Fellow with the Ukraine Forum at Chatham House in London. “Disillusionment with the current political class is very high. Society has developed expectations of its leaders and these have not been met.”
Did Poroshensko fail to fight corruption in Ukraine or was he himself corrupted? Lough, who last year published a report on Ukraine’s anti-corruption reforms, says that some important reforms took place to limit the space for corruption but that Poroshenko made sure that the new Anti-Corruption Bureau, for example, could not achieve results.
“Effectively, Poroshenko allowed the ‘system’ to ignore the central demands of the 2014 Revolution of Dignity. He is part of this ‘system’ that functions for the benefit of a small number of insiders and their associates and not for Ukraine’s citizens.”
Zelensky´s victory is the more amazing as he won the elections despite preferring speaking Russian over Ukrainian and being of Jewish origin in a country with an anti-semitic past. “Zelensky’s election negates what Russia has been saying about Ukraine since 2014, namely that fascism and neo-nazism are flourishing there,” adds Lough.
In their letter, Tusk and Juncker assured Zelensky that he, as president of Ukraine, can count on EU’s support and invited him to a meeting at the earliest possible date. Asked by The Brussels Times, a Commission spokesperson said that no date has been determined yet but that the teams are in touch with each-other. The inauguration of Zelensky as president is likely scheduled to end May.
Zelensky will be facing huge challenges such as solving the ongoing conflict with separatists supported by Russia in its eastern Donbass region, where 13 000 people have been killed, and ramping corruption despite EU-inspired anti-corruption measures (32 points on Transparency International´s corruption index). Still he is optimistic about leading Ukraine towards EU and NATO membership in the coming years.
The Brussels Times
(A former version of the article did not include the comments by Ukraine expert John Lough).