no foolin'

zelenskiy's message resonates with ukrainians

reading the preliminary results

After a busy last few days of campaigning across the country, yesterday more than 18 million Ukrainians cast ballots in the first round of the 2019 presidential election.

Returns are still coming in — as I write this, 71 per cent of precincts are reporting — but the results correspond to exit polls, which show comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy with a commanding lead heading into the second around against incumbent President Petro Poroshenko. At 12:30 Ukraine time, the Central Election Commission reports that about 30 per cent of voters chose Zelenskiy, while only 16 per cent supported Poroshenko. Full results will be confirmed by April 10, but Zelenskiy and Poroshenko will almost certainly face off in the second round on April 21.

why zelenskiy?

(Zelenskiy performs at a concert in the Kyiv suburb of Brovary on Friday night.)

I’m growing a bit tired of the narrative of Zelenskiy as simple, inexperienced actor, comedian, and performer. Ukrainians recognize his background, but it’s not what’s most important to them.

At a Zelenskiy concert in the Kyiv suburbs on Friday night, a number of voters of all ages told me what they cared about wasn’t his performance career. Rather, he had their vote because to them, he represents change. His inexperience is an asset in their eyes. They believe it means Zelenskiy will not be beholden to the system in the same way as those who came before him, and will be willing to find creative solutions to the country’s intractable problems. One woman mentioned the war in the Donbas in particular, noting that Poroshenko’s strategy has killed 13,000 people so far (her words, not mine). If there is even a possibility that negotiations with Putin would end that cycle of death and violence, she is happy for Zelenskiy to make an attempt.

Zelenskiy closed his show on Friday with several critical but patriotic songs, including my personal favorite, “I Love My Homeland,” a tongue-in-cheek rock number about loving Ukraine despite its failings. It’s a bit idiomatic and hard to translate (and an earworm, so listen at your own peril), but the cliff notes are:

Our country has supposedly changed, but the people in power are still stealing from us, our quality of life isn’t improving, and there’s still a war in the East. All we want is to live in peace.

It was a number that got the crowd off their feet and made me understand more than any interview or analysis what Zelenskiy’s candidacy is about; voters are willing to blindly put their faith in a virtual political unknown because the sentiments he expresses on and offstage resonate with them on a visceral level. It’s not all about laughs.

(Zelenskiy addresses the crowd of press and supporters gathered at his campaign headquarters on election night.)

When Zelenskiy addressed the crowd gathered at his campaign headquarters on Sunday night, he was asked what he might say to Putin at their first meeting. “Do we have a meeting set already?” he quipped. “I’ll say to him, ‘Thank you for finally giving our territories back to us. Now how much are you going to compensate us for taking them away?”

It’s not in the bag for Zelenskiy yet. Poroshenko is fighting for his political life and determined to pull out all the stops to stay in power. The next three weeks of mudslinging will determine Ukraine’s future, and I’ll be here to explain it.

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