Laugh all you like at Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky - but your country’s next leader might be a comic
It’s tempting to treat the comedian’s role as frontrunner in Sunday’s election in Ukraine as a dark joke about the country’s turmoil. But his type will grow more common even in the well-off West – and that may not be a bad thing.
As the country of 44 million picks from a field of 39 presidential candidates, Volodymyr Zelensky has consistently polled at the top, and should be assured of reaching the run-off, where he is projected to defeat both incumbent Petro Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Neither Trump, nor Grillo
The increasingly tangible rise of the anti-establishment comedian has prompted the expected reach for comparisons. From the obvious – like Donald Trump's, Zelensky’s recognizability comes from TV, where he has played a fictional common-man president for four years. To the more sophisticated – comedian Beppe Grillo’s fiery satirical rants, much like those delivered by Zelensky’s character in his sitcom, fueled the foundation of the Five-Star Movement, currently in power in Italy. To the outright esoteric – there is actually a TV comedian leading a European state right now, namely, Marjan Sarec, the center-left prime minister of Slovenia since last August.
None of these shorthands are a perfect match for 41-year-old Zelensky’s toothy-grinned light-entertainer persona, or his deliberately fuzzy campaign platform. Nor have the countries in which these outsiders have succeeded lost half of their GDP in the last five years, suffered an unresolved armed conflict inside their territory, or seen their leaders replaced by street protests twice since 2004. Ukraine’s pluralist political scene has always been a fervid circus in which serious intent has competed on even terms with naked self-promotion and cynical manipulation.Also on rt.com The hidden 40th candidate? Ukrainian presidential campaign is largely about Vladimir Putin
Yet for the glibness of direct comparisons, there are deeper systemic commonalities between these politicians that are important. And that’s not about calling them “populists” and treating them as some alien eel: googly-eyed, slightly gross, and forever escaping our grasp.
All of these newcomers are born of the impotence of those in power. Poroshenko swept in on a revolutionary mandate, but has not just been stuck in the mire of corruption, inertia and Kiev power games, but appears to have actively cultivated them.
Similarly, the political class in the West. The post-Berlin Wall 'End of History' politicians who have simply shrugged their shoulders as their countries have been overwhelmed by mass migration, their workforce has been squeezed by globalization, all while inequalities perpetuated by fluid corporate capital were allowed to grow unchecked.
The scale of the problem may be different, but empty promises from self-perpetuating bureaucrats set teeth on edge the same way in Milan and Mariupol.
Death of deference
But there are fundamental societal factors enabling the success of these upstarts. Politicians have always been lampooned and criticized, both individually and for their job description alone. But the need for professional politicians had previously not been questioned, however out-of-touch they seemed. Anyone who has seen the historical show The Crown must have been struck by how a straitened Britain democratically chose in 1951 a group of earls, marquesses, and viscounts, who might have had only the most indirect inkling of their concerns, to rule over them. Individual elitists still exist in government, but Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg appear more like self-conscious retro tribute acts rather than veritable born-to-rule scions.
For neophytes, this lack of deference is a boon, and when the electorate watches Angela Merkel flail at the migrant crisis, or MPs stringing out the repeated farce of futile Brexit votes, they are justified in believing that an outsider with political will can bring greater value than an understanding of the machinery.
This goes hand in hand with an overall relaxation of etiquette, and a tolerance for the personal in the public sphere, accelerated by social media. Politicians with “the common touch” were always valued, but now leaders don’t just talk like ordinary people, they have hinterlands (Miss Universe contest organizers, world-class cricketers, bodybuilders and casual cocaine lovers) that might have once plunged them into scandal. How quaint does the whole Clinton “I did not inhale” controversy seem now? As always, as long as Trump or Zelensky don’t play by the rules and pretend to be stuffy straight-as-an-arrow adults, they are not held to the same standards.
Pushing out Pelosi
While charismatic upstarts are a staple of third-world narratives, it is arguable that Western powers are currently the most ready to be taken over.
Developed two-party systems are evidently inadequate in representing the electorate, while the established political class is weighed down with the arcana of their jobs, with the American system additionally verging on becoming a gerontocracy. As long as leaders are too mealy-mouthed to pinpoint where the rawest concerns are, a Salvini, Le Pen, or a Wilders will pop out to give them voice – that is, if hundreds of thousands aren’t marching in yellow vests.
Because there is no doubt about it – many established powers are undergoing the biggest challenge in their history since the Age of Enlightenment. Europe is, relatively, the weakest it has been in centuries, and America’s uncontested primacy it has enjoyed for the past three decades is not guaranteed in perpetuity.
Light of the World
But the quest for the Holy Grail of outsider politics remains uncompleted. While Donald Trump has been a game and, by any assessment, active president, even his supporters would admit that his limited understanding of the mechanics of government has not always been an advantage in “draining the swamp,” an effort in which the US president has sometimes failed to overcome even his own party.
The world awaits the non-establishment candidate, who can not only be a whirlwind, but a careful builder – a person not sullied by establishment politics, and able to mobilize modern means of communication, yet with a coherent political vision, capacity to handle policy in detail, and to defeat their political adversaries in the backrooms and debating chambers, not just on Twitter.
Think Kanye West crossed with Alexander Hamilton.
There is little evidence for the moment that Zelensky is that people’s messiah – though the full range of his talents remains unknown and likely untapped. But such a politician has already been born, and if they get a shot at power, the consequences will not be just for their country, but the world – ushering in a new open age of public politics worldwide.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.