An actor with no political experience other than playing the president on a TV comedy series has been elected president of one of Europe’s biggest countries.
Volodomyr Zelenskiy — who plays a school teacher who gets elected president after an online rant on the popular drama series Servant of the People — beat incumbent Petro Poroshenko in Sunday’s runoff poll.
Exit polls late Sunday showed that as many as three out of every four Ukrainians cast their votes for the actor, rather than the sitting president.
Poroshenko, an experienced politician and former defense minister who has been dogged by corruption allegations, conceded defeat late Sunday after a remarkable campaign in which his political-novice rival eschewed traditional political campaigning, preferring to use social media to build a mass following.
Zelenskiy — who is believed to be backed by Ihor Kolomoisky, the billionaire owner of TV station Studio 1+1 — capitalized on cynicism in a country riven by poverty and a simmering civil war against Russian-backed rebels in two eastern provinces, where people have lost faith in politicians. Polls show that as few as nine percent of Ukrainians have any trust in their government at all.
In the one debate between the candidates — held Friday in a stadium in the capital, Kiev — the pair traded barbed insults in front of a crowd of tens of thousands of supporters, most of whom were rooting for Poroshenko.
Zelenskiy, who has been accused at best of having no policies and at worse of being a puppet of Kolomoisky, goaded Poroshenko by telling him that his phenomenal support across the country was thanks to the failure of the president’s policies.
Poroshenko accused the actor and comic of being politically incompetent, pro-Russian and of making jokes at Ukraine’s expense.
But those who know him say Zelenskiy is a highly intelligent, phenomenally hard-working man who listens to others’ arguments.
American David Dodson, who directed three episodes of Servant of the People — which ran over three seasons over the past four years — said that Zelenskiy was able to swiftly master a brief and be attentive no matter how heavy a workload he was under.
Speaking to the BBC on Sunday, Dodson said: “Even if he has had no sleep, he will come to a meeting and deal with whatever issue is at hand.”
The TV series — from which Zelenskiy took the name of his political party for the presidential election campaign — depicts the actor becoming president in a surprise poll, followed by the collapse of the country into rival cantons, before the third series envisages the country reuniting and finding new purpose.
An English subtitled version of the Ukrainian-language series can be viewed on Netflix.
Whether reality will now be further shaped by fiction remains an open question, although Poroshenko is his concession speech Sunday night said he was willing to help Zelenskiy in his transition to the presidency.
Zelenskiy told supporters after the exit poll results were released: “I shall never let you down.”