Until recently, few outside Ukraine knew about Volodymyr Zelenskiy, even though his hugely popular sitcom Servant of the People, is now into its fourth season—a ‘must see’ for most Ukrainians. In the serial, Zelenskiy—one of the best known comedians in the country—plays the role of an honest history teacher who, through his rant against the system and subsequent popularity through social media, is catapulted as president. Now, in an instance of supreme irony, people in Ukraine and elsewhere have begun to wonder if real life is going to imitate ‘reel life’. For, if the current political trend continues, from April 21 onwards it is Zelenskiy who will be anointed as President of this geo-strategically important country along the Black Sea coastline on Russia’s doorstep.
The Ukrainian comedian may not be the only upset winner in the forthcoming presidential polls if he upstages current president, 53-year old Petro Poroshenko in the second round of elections. In the first round, Zelenskiy, who polled 19 per cent, pipped both Poroshenko (16 per cent) and Yulia Tymoshenko. The first two now face off on April 21.
In Slovakia last week, voters opted for Zuzana Caputova, 45, a rights lawyer with little political background, over the ruling leftist Smern social-democratic party candidate, Maros Sefcovic. In doing so, Slovakia, which broke away from former Czechoslovakia in 1993, elected its first-ever female president.
The same trend—a relative political outsider storming a well-defended bastion—was seen in late last year’s election in Brazil. Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain and a far-right party leader, who has defended the military rule in Brazil (1964-85) that killed thousands of leftist workers and supporters, became president, ending the 14-year rule of the Worker’s Party.
These developments indicate that the world’s political stage has been going through a churn in the past few years, the outcome being the advent of newcomers, some with little or no background in politics, to dominate the scene in a whirlwind of sorts, surprising established political personalities and consigning them to the margins.
While many new entrants would happily lend their name in an ‘also ran’ list, some have displayed the resourcefulness and mettle to rout stalwart adversaries in keenly contested elections. In politics, the sudden advent of a bright spark is usually seen in local council or mayoral elections. The current barrage of upset victories, defying political punditry, is unique in that many of these contests have been for the countries’ topmost political offices.
There is a common thread that runs through the campaign style of these three leaders. Bolsonaro campaigned largely from his bed after being seriously wounded in a knife attack at an election rally, relying on the social media skills of his young band of supporters to spread his message of strong action against corruption—a rousing call to action in a country saturated by scams in recent years.
Zuzana Caputova’s slogan ‘Stand up for Evil’ seems to have caught the zeitgeist; it helped her in securing 58.4 per cent of the votes against her rival’s 41.6 per cent. Also an environmentalist, Caputova first gained prominence when she marched with over 5.4 million people in anti-government protests over the February 2018 killing of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee. With her campaign to weed out “corruption and influence peddling” among prosecutors and police, she seemed to have struck a deep chord that resonated with most Slovakians. She thanked supporters profusely: “I am happy not just for the result but mainly that it is possible not to succumb to populism, to tell the truth, to raise interest without aggressive vocabulary.” That the race was low on rancour is proven by her closest rival Sefcovic’s comment: “I will send her flowers. The first woman president deserves a bouquet.”
The Slovakian president’s role may be largely ceremonial, but it’s another matter in Ukraine, which has an executive presidency. Zelenskiy’s attempt to reach out to voters has been unique. In his deliberately, and cunningly, unconventional campaign, there were no official rallies bristling with political speeches, but only funny and cheerful videos, dances and jokes at what can only be called political gatherings. They were a massive draw. “No promises, no disappointment,” he had quipped blithely. At a large gathering at a football stadium a week before the March 31 polls, he said, “There is a no rally here. You are smart people, you know what to do, right?” Zelenskiy is a step away from creating a big upset in Ukraine’s politics. His incredible run shows that democracies are susceptible, as ever, to the anti-establishment wave roiling world politics.
The phenomenon unfolded before a stunned world through 2016, when rank outsider Donald Trump ran through a crowded Republican Party field, grabbed the coveted nomination and, in the November 2016 US presidential polls, scored a spectacular upset by defeating Hillary Clinton. Trump’s victory also coincided with the assembly of a number of leaders across the world sporting ‘tough’ images—their agenda being to dismantle the existing status quo.
However, there are some leaders who stand on the other side of the pale, like the 58-year old prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, a thorough liberal once monikered by Vogue magazine as “anti-Trump”. Not only did she become the second woman leader after former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto to have a baby while in office. It was her sure-footed, firm stand amidst New Zealand’s direst hour of trial—when a right-wing fanatic gunned down 50 worshippers in two Christchurch mosques last month—that established her as a ‘woman of substance’.
While most politicians would try to milk a tragedy like this for political gain, as Turkey’s Erdogan had tried to do, Ardern stood out for her empathetic and determined political response that included reforming gun laws and criticising those trying to politicise the situation. That, and the rich notes of poignancy she effortlessly hit in her addresses to the nation, won her plaudits from supporters and critics alike. When Trump called her up and asked what he could do, she replied unhesitatingly, “empathy for all Muslim communities”. At memorials for the Muslim victims and at their funerals, she showed that empathy in person. Ardern’s political astuteness was evident, too, in her decision to keep the Australian gunman unnamed. “He sought many things from his act of terror. But one was notoriety. He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless,” she had memorably said in New Zealand’s parliament.
Some among these new leaders will morph into more mature politicians and perhaps, even statesmen who will be remembered for their liberal policies. Some, indeed, might chart an opposite course—something populist leaders should always be wary of. Some, after a brief flaring up of latent talent, will simply fade away. The world political stage is theirs; it is upon them now to honour the trust bestowed by so many hopeful millions.
Ukraine A popular comedian, Volodymyr Zelenskiy is front-runner at presidential polls
Slovakia Rights lawyer Zuzana Caputova became the country’s first woman president
Brazil Former soldier and far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro won polls on a hardline cry against corruption