The recent Ukrainian presidential elections were a spectacular political event. Several months before the elections they seemed to be another boring repetition of the endless confrontation between Poroshenko and the perpetual candidate Yulia Timoshenko or the emergence of some hidden underdog from the former Party of Regions.

Instead, the contest was won by a person with absolutely no political experience that skilfully repeated people’s complaints, and as it appeared, his lack of experience turned out to be his best asset. In the end, Zelensky literally shattered the incumbent president Poroshenko in the second round.

Whether steering from behind or focusing on his self-made image, Zelensky epitomizes the feelings of the vast majority of Ukrainians and this is what democracy is all about.

The debate circus and its promising consequences

Probably the most memorable moment of the presidential campaign will remain the political debate between Zelensky and Poroshenko that took place at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev.

Consciously or not, this debate invoked associations with the old Kozaks habits of decision-making venues at the Maidan. Paradoxically, the earlier XXI century Maidans (during the Orange and Dignity revolutions) were taking place in response to the blatant abuses of power.

This time, the show served its political purpose. It might not have led to major shifts in the electoral preferences but clearly exposed the differences between the two candidates. Poroshenko’s patriotic strategy crashed into Zelensky’s vox populi.

Noticeably, both were openly anti-Russian and during the first round the first openly pro-Russian candidate ended up fourth with slightly over 11%.

Political debate with unfair practices

Poroshenko’s camp considered the debate as a last resort to reverse the unfavourable polls. Thus, the theoretically impartial debate turned out to be a well-orchestrated political ambush for Zelensky.

During the debate, three attempts were made to strengthen the picture of Poroshenko. First, by introducing additional supporters to the stage behind the incumbent president during the debate. Second, Poroshenko’s camp kidnapped the Ukrainian flag symbolically excluding Zełensky outside the Ukrainian community.

Finally, at the end of the debate, when the scandalous supporters of Zełensky were much louder, the Poroshenko camp intoned a hymn, and the attendants picked it up, urging everyone to sing together.

Zelensky’s win is quite telling about the tendencies in the Ukrainian society.

Although the country is at war, national sentiments are not the strongest social bond. Instead, people continue to vote with their pockets and personal experience.

Regardless of the fact that Poroshenko waged the war, managed to get a visa free travel for Ukrainians to the EU and received substantial international support, he was not able to change the political reality, to fight corruption successfully or improve Ukrainians’ living standard.

On the contrary, the Ukrainian economy plummeted, the country lost territories, the murders of the Maidan protesters were not punished, and his personal example was also very dubious.

Poroshenko himself became a victim of his own success. He took control of Ukraine after a period of enormous political mobilisation with very high hopes. After five years, his biggest success is that the country is still on a pro-Western course.

Zelensky is not a political phenomenon. He simply repeated the voice of the vast majority of Ukrainians. It is not that the people felt betrayed by Poroshenko, they were simply disappointed.

Ukraine’s election results map best reveals that embracing the patriotic and nationalist agenda was a bad strategy and utterly insufficient.

Not because it is not needed, but because after the revolution of dignity, the Ukrainians again expected improvements in the way the state operates, to notice a decrease of pathologies and the sense of a positive change. These were the higher priorities that Poroshenko was unable to deliver.

The only region where Poroshenko won in the second round is the Lviv oblast – the stronghold of Ukrainian nationalism. And he, just like Yushchenko five years earlier, ended up severely defeated.

Ukrainians are aware that their politics is driven by oligarchs. Despite this, they still preferred the “unknown” aware that electing the same president would simply mean an extension of the status quo for another five years.

Zelenski comes with enormous political credit and that means for him only troubles. He positioned himself as an anti-establishment, one-of-the-people, disappointed and demanding individual, but now he will have to materialise all his criticism into action.

Zelensky cleverly avoided radical statements and epitomised the voice of the Ukrainian people for which the hardcore nationalist arguments are just as unacceptable as having an openly pro-Russian policy. His promises for keeping the pro-Western direction and moderate arguments on Russia will soon be confronted with demands for rapid improvement of the economic situation. His largely unclear political agenda will become his biggest curse.

Worrisome harbinger

The high hopes for Zelensky come with one disturbing caveat. During the presidential debate he made a peculiar promise to limit his stay in office to only one term, a very dangerous precedent in Ukrainian politics.

It is not by chance that the Ukrainian constitution allows for two consecutive terms. The second term is an award for a job well done. Politicians should not give up prematurely, just as they should not be overly attached to their posts.

Most probably Zelensky wanted to highlight his servant role and to confirm that he will not hold the power at any price, but this cheap populism can have far reaching negative consequences for the political culture in Ukraine.

Igor Kolomoyski from Wikipedia Commons

Such self-restraint strips Zelensky from political responsibility and largely makes him unaccountable. Should we accept that Zelensky is Igor Kolomoyski’s protegee, we should assume this is the start of the Kolomoyski era in Ukrainian politics. Its characteristic feature could materialize in the formal change of presidents with a backseat-steering leading. This model has been alive and in Poland over the last four years, but it is extremely harmful to the democratic process.

Notwithstanding these weaknesses the Ukrainian elections are a ray of hope for the post-Soviet space. The peaceful transition of power after five years at war is a good sign. No one knows what would have been the situation if the elections were highly contested, but this is not important now.

Remarkably, the Poroshenko supporters farewell gathering in front of the president’s office is a practice worth nurturing, and a symbol of hope that through consensual political rituals, the country will drift even closer to the West.

The elections can have also far reaching regional consequences. The Russian approach towards Ukraine will have to be redefined. The “fascists” narrative will need to be replaced because Zelensky hardly fits it.

The decreasing feature of Ukrainian identity can open new fronts for regional cooperation and increase Ukraine’s position.

Finally, Ukrainians have proved once again that a peaceful change to the elite is possible, that debating politicians is far better than accusing political opponents of mental problems and ordering political murders. If they manage to keep this pace for another decade, they might become a role-model for the whole post-Soviet space. If not, we will have another Maidan.

#DemocraCE Fellow. Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Lazarski University in Warsaw, Poland.

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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