KIEV — In Ukraine, the time for jokes is over.
With an incredibly successful blitz campaign, television satirist Volodymyr Zelenskiy has captured the support of the vast majority of Ukrainians and appears poised to become the countrys next president in the elections second round of voting Sunday.
The fictional president he plays in the satirical TV series “Servant of the People” gave millions a sense of hope that politics can be different. Now, were about to witness a truly unique political project: a reality show in which everyone gets to participate.
The moment Ukrainians believed Zelenskiy could win, it was all over for incumbent President Petro Poroshenko.
A representative of the old system, Poroshenko could not change his tactics — but, as a joke in Kiev goes, he never worked so diligently as under the threat of a Zelenskiy presidency.
The showmans political program is deliberately general so he can be seen as a centrist figure.
The president was fighting Mission Impossible: His policies backed nation-building and the war, instead of a better economy and governance. But Ukrainians are fed up with the war and the status quo. A huge number of voters — 88 percent of Zelenskiys supporters and even 76 percent of Poroshenkos — say they want radical changes in Ukraine, according to polls.
Delivering on that demand wont be easy. We know Zelenskiy is a shoo-in for the presidency, but we dont know what his presidency will look like.
Zelenskiys agenda is still somewhat murky, but there are several key elements to his political vision: direct democracy (he wants to pass a law on referendums), a 5 percent tax amnesty and new, tighter rules for oligarchs.
He is also calling for a new focus on the states role in service delivery while cutting the states direct (read, restrictive) impact on citizens. He has made numerous pledges to continue working with the International Monetary Fund — understandably, as Ukraine has to pay back almost $36 billion to foreign creditors in 2019-2021. He also has positioned himself as a supporter of Ukraines Euro-Atlantic integration.
Incumbent Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is facing a heavy electoral defeat | Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA
But for the most part, Zelenskiy has been an effective performer, avoiding offering anything of substance on most issues and walking a tightrope not to alienate any one group of Ukrainian voters, except true Poroshenko believers.
The showmans political program is deliberately general so he can be seen as a centrist figure — Ukraines answer to French President Emmanuel Macron. If hes had smooth ride so far, its not just the result of luck, but of smart political strategy.
Things are about to get much tougher for him. Zelenskiys window of opportunity to make an impact on key issues that have rallied Ukrainians behind him is actually pretty small.
Ukraine has a mixed political system; the president needs the cooperation of parliament to make policy. Unless Zelenskiy shows that he can make the opaque party system work for him, his popularity will invariably suffer.
The next big hurdle will be parliamentary elections in October. Zelenskiy will try to follow in the footsteps of Frances Macron and Armenias new prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, to break the national party system. He will try to win big by building a more inclusive, regionally balanced party and pushing the idea of direct democracy by engaging voters in town hall meetings (à la Macron) and via social networks (like Pashinyan).
Hell face fierce opposition, including from Yulia Tymoshenko — a fellow presidential candidate and notorious political survivor — and Poroshenko. On the other hand, many of the countrys oligarchs, have been g