by Erin Flaherty
"Servant of the people”, a popular TV show in Ukraine, tells the story of a high school teacher named Vasiliy that goes viral for speaking out against corruption and becomes president of Ukraine. With a captivating storyline and timely message, the show became the 5th most popular show nationwide after premiering. For years, Ukraine’s government has been plagued by elite officials backed by special interests. For Ukrainians, a trustworthy government seemed like an unattainable relic, and “Servant of The People” showed a Ukraine where justice was restored.
After watching 3 seasons of Vasily fighting for democracy, the Ukrainian electorate could only dream of a candidate like Vasily. The approval rating for their current government was at an all-time-low, with 91% of people saying that they had little to no confidence in their government. In a twist of fate, their dreams would come true, when the actor who plays Vasily ran for office. Volodymyr Zelensky announced that he was running for office under the Servant of the People party, named after the famous show.
But he didn’t just run for office, he won! Ukraine had its first round of its election in early April, and over 5.7 million voted for Zelensky out of the 18.9 million who voted. Behind him was current incumbent Ukrainian President, Pyotr Poroshenko, who has been linked to several treason scandals involving bribery throughout his time as president. The second round of elections was held April 21st, and Zelensky won by a landslide, receiving over 70% of the popular vote.
After the first round of elections, Zelensky and his team began to campaign their anti-corruption plan. "For old politicians, corruption is the same as water for fish. The old political elite against corruption is the same as bees against honey”, his team told Telegram channel. With the help of the International Supreme Economic Court, they hope to decriminalize the economy in Ukraine. "The Ukrainian economy is clearly built for the continued success of its wealthiest members. Zelensky will be handed the difficult task of breaking up a system corrupted by private monopolies and oligarchies. His administration's plan is what Zelensky has called a “common sense” way to approach corruption; they reward those who expose corruption while working with officials to scope out individuals contributing to scandals.
Much of Zelensky’s attention will be drawn to foreign issues regarding Russia. Ukraine and Russia have had ongoing conflicts since Russian soldiers annexed Crimea, a peninsula formerly under Ukraine’s control, in 2014. Some say that Zelensky would engage with Russia well, compared to Poroshenko who has offended the Russian government with his comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, others expressed concerns that Zelinsky's inexperience would make him vulnerable to Russian manipulation. “Russia sees Zelensky as a new Macron or Trump, a novice to be exploited and played with,” said foreign policy expert Vladimir Frolov.
Frolov brings up the parallels between other recent elections where the “common man” has unexpectedly won an election. However, Zelensky differentiates himself from these candidates in his appearance as a less polarizing figure, and more of a moderate politician. Zelensky also differs from other figures in his religious identity as a Jew. Ukraine is now the only country other than Israel to have a Jewish Prime Minister and President. Zelensky didn’t focus on this during his campaign, as he believed his religious identity didn’t affect his stance as a politician. As Yaroslav Hrytsak, a history professor at the Ukrainian Catholic University said, “People in times of war and crisis don’t care that much about who is what religion. They care about the agenda he or she represents.”
Overall, Zelensky has been much less focused on dividing the people of Ukraine with party politics and more focused on uniting the people against Ukraine’s most prevalent issues. As Washington Post Columnist Anne Applebaum said, Zelensky is “a symbol of success and national unity in a country that has often felt divided.” Zelensky's presidency marks the start of a fresh and new era in Ukrainian politics.