Opinion: Ukraine votes for fresh start with comedian | Opinion | DW | 22.04.2019
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Opinion

Opinion: Ukraine votes for fresh start with comedian

Volodymyr Zelenskiy made light work of incumbent Petro Poroshenko in the presidential polls. Ukrainians have voted for a fresh start, but that also comes with the risk of failure and disappointment, writes Bernd Johann.

Up on stage, the comedian has a relatively easy job. As a charmer and provocateur, he captivates people. His most important promise to the audience is to provide good entertainment. His success is guaranteed; the promise swiftly fulfilled. When the audience laughs and cheers, the comedian has won.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy already plays the role of president of Ukraine in a TV series. But now he's actually been elected president. The actor and comedian defeated incumbent Petro Poroshenko by a landslide in Sunday's runoff. He left him no chance in what was an extremely polarized and personality-driven campaign. Zelenskiy repeatedly refused to take part in a genuine public debate. The 41-year-old's political views were vague. But up on stage and on social media, Zelenskiy pulled out all the stops. And above all, he used the election campaign to level broad criticism at the Poroshenko system.

Read more:  Zelenskiy outshined Poroshenko on way to victory

DW's Bernd Johann

DW's Bernd Johann

Widespread discontent with Poroshenko

His election victory shows that change is possible if large sections of the population are unhappy with the current policy. After five years under Poroshenko, Ukraine is still one of the poorest countries in Europe. Foreign investments are few and far between, the judiciary isn't independent, corruption and nepotism are alive and well. Most recently, Poroshenko himself has been viewed with growing suspicion after several corruption scandals shook his inner circle.

And then there's the conflict with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. There aren't any immediate prospects for a political solution in sight — not even for progress on the humanitarian front, for people on the front lines or for political prisoners. Poroshenko, as commander in chief, has implemented reforms in the army. But he's also morphed into a hard-liner and a nationalist who has no more political doors open to him when it comes to Crimea and the Donbass question.

Read moreCan a comedian unite a divided country?

Watch video 01:56

Volodymyr Zelenskiy to become Ukraine's next president

Ukrainians want fresh faces

All of these problems now confront Zelenskiy, who, during the election campaign, made no secret of the fact that he has no political experience. He won't be able to solve these problems with wit, charm or funny YouTube videos. It's quite possible that he and his supporters might soon have little to laugh about — because the promised fresh start will be difficult and comes with the risk of failure. 

Ukrainians want new faces in politics. Zelenskiy only has a small team working for him. And it will only be clear after parliamentary elections scheduled for October who will govern Ukraine in the future. By then it'll also be evident which political forces Zelenskiy will align with, and the news may well bring disappointment for a section of those who voted for him.

Read moreUkraine's next president — a laughing matter? 

Petro Poroshenko

Poroshenko accepted his defeat, but he stressed that he was not leaving politics

Questions for the new president

Volodymyr Zelenskiy will have to take care that such alliances do not take the momentum out of the wave of optimism that led to his election. He has already been accused of having close personal and business ties to the controversial self-exiled Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi. And then there's the question of how Zelenskiy the entrepreneur will keep up with his own show business and media company holdings when he becomes president. Ukrainians are still waiting for answers from their future president. Now he must finally explain, and demonstrate through actions, what he will do as president to improve the country.

Europe, the United States and Canada, which all support Ukraine's path of reform, are also keenly watching to see how things progress. They want to see an orderly handover of power, and they want to see winners and losers alike respect the outcome of the election. Ukrainians have now used democratic means to trigger a political restart for a second time, following the Maidan protests in 2013. And they should be congratulated for that.

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