Outgoing Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko is to be commended for presiding over an election that was generally free and fair and, more importantly, in accepting the outcome. Privately, however, he may be breathing a sigh of relief that he will not have to take responsibility for some of the major decisions Ukraine is facing—decisions which will prove to be difficult and unpopular.
His successor, comedian Volodomyr Zelensky, fits squarely in the mold of anti-establishment populist candidates who have been winning elections all throughout Europe—and his attractiveness as a presidential candidate for having played one on television carries echoes of how Donald Trump’s public persona in The Apprentice likewise helped to boost his presidential prospects. Zelensky ran, in essence, a kaleidoscope campaign—Ukrainian voters projected their dislike and anger at the failures of the Poroshenko administration to make good the promise of the Maidan uprising, how he has handled the situation with Russia, and the painful economic adjustments Ukraine has had to make to obtain financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund and to fulfill the criteria of the EU Association Agreement—onto a candidate with no clear platform of his own.
Yet, when one breaks down the voter bloc which coalesced to give Zelensky a commanding win in the second round, it is immediately clear that this is an unstable coalition—one that is likely to fracture quickly. Zelensky won voters by commanding margins in Ukraine’s south and east, many attracted by his promise to settle the conflict with Russia. Younger voters disillusioned by how quickly politics returned to pre-Maidan normality threw their support to an outsider and nonpolitician in the hopes that he could drain the Kyivan swamp. Zelensky’s few public statements included a commitment to pursue full membership in the European Union and NATO, which is indistinguishable from Poroshenko’s own aspirations, but helped to deprive Poroshenko of harvesting more nationalist votes in the west. Finally, a vague set of comments about reversing some of the economic pain that Ukraine has suffered over the past several years pulled in the older generations who otherwise might have reluctantly preferred to stick with the political status quo.