The politician and the showman

Published: 22 May 2019

In this final contribution to the majority nationalism series, Nataliia Kasianenko of Fresno State University reflects on the recent elections in Ukraine, analyzing the discourse of the campaign. 

In the second round of the 2019 presidential campaign, the novice politician and actor, business person and media personality Volodymyr Zelensky won out over the incumbent president Petro Poroshenko. The campaigns of the two candidates were markedly different, reflecting their different political positions. Zelensky is new to politics and brands himself as a young, transparent and anti-establishment type of leader. Based on Zelensky’s background as a comedian and showman, Western observers compared him to Donald Trump, but nationalism and isolationism are absent from his platform. When it came to his political programme, the front runner was considered a black box candidate due to limited detail on his policy objectives, he also waited until the weekend of the elections to name the people who would be invited to work in his administration. Running on a populist platform, he pledged to end the war in the Donbas, eradicate corruption, and support the continued European course for Ukraine thus appealing more broadly to the people of Ukraine. This strategy of advancing a catch-all political position by appealing to multiple diverse groups of anti-establishment voters was quite shrewd and ultimately paid off. The election results suggest that Zelensky was effective in his ability to consolidate voter support from all but one region of Ukraine. This national unity is unprecedented in Ukraine’s history of elections. Zelensky’s electoral success is also striking considering he had few face-to-face meetings with his supporters. Instead, he mostly campaigned online, at his concerts and through his television show “Servant of the People.” 

In contrast, Poroshenko is an experienced politician. He conducted his campaign using a more conventional approach, travelling the country, organizing meetings with his supporters, and conducting press conferences. Poroshenko had a more clearly defined political campaign based on the slogans of defending Ukraine’s military, language and faith. He mainly appealed to the Ukrainian military and the pro-establishment voters who liked the idea of closer ties to Europe and a hardline military stance towards Russia. Poroshenko often used the language of majority nationalism by pitting Ukraine’s true patriots against the traitors representing the pro-Russian “fifth column.” He identified Ukrainians as a nation of Europeans with strong Western traditions of democracy and Christian Orthodox values as opposed to the Russian people he defined as uncivilized and authoritarian. This rhetoric may be partially justified on the account that Russia annexed Crimea and continues to support the separatists in the Donbas, yet this type of language is still divisive for the multi-ethnic and multi-religious population of Ukraine.  

For both candidates, social media was a key pillar in the campaign. They extensively relied on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to advance their rhetoric and galvanize electoral support. While Poroshenko dominated Facebook with over 2 million followers, Zelensky was more active on Instagram with about 3 million followers. Zelensky is the likely winner of the presidential race on social media as well since Poroshenko has been accused of artificially inflating his online support through the use of fake accounts. Both candidates used direct and provoking communication style on social media. Zelensky highlighted corruption, military and economic failures of the current regime, while Poroshenko identified his rival as a pro-Russian candidate and the puppet of Ukraine’s exiled oligarch, Ihor Kolomoisky.  

In the weeks after his landslide victory, Zelensky is making calls for national unity. He often speaks both Ukrainian and Russian in his public announcements and social media posts to appeal to the Ukrainian-speaking majority and the Russian-speaking minority. Days after the elections, Ukraine’s parliament passed the new language law that reinforced the use of Ukrainian by making it mandatory for civil service. While Zelensky did not openly criticize the law, he alluded to the fact that the use of restrictions and punishments was not an effective way of advancing the national language. While it may be too early to evaluate Zelensky’s stance on the question of Ukraine’s national identity, it is clear that identity issues are not among his priorities. Instead, the Russian aggression, slow economic development, labor emigration, and corruption seem to be at the center of his post-presidential rhetoric.  

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