By Dominik Rehbaum
Comedians will soon rule the world. At least that’s the impression one could get when looking at the ever-growing number of international comics and showmen who are running for – and in fact winning – political mandates. In 1981, when Ronald Reagan became President of the United States, the former actor and television star demonstrated that showmen can have a real shot at a country’s highest public office. In the 21st century, the entertainer-turned-politician model seems to have become an even more promising success formula in elections not only in America but across the entire globe.
The slogan “Neither corrupt, nor a thief” won former comic actor Jimmy Morales the 2015 Guatemalan presidential election while Brazilian actor, clown and comedian Tiririca proclaimed “it can’t get any worse” to win the nomination as a federal deputy of São Paulo in 2010 - and Europe is by no means inferior. Former actor and satirist Marjan Sarec was elected Slovenian prime minister in August 2018 while Italian comedian and actor Beppe Grillo helped to mastermind the Movimento 5 Stelle, which now forms part of Italy’s ruling coalition.
Despite the phenomenon of contenders for political office deliberately blurring the lines of entertainment and politics being anything but new, the notion of entertainers to rule the world was up until very recently just a hypothetical one. However, old political structures are becoming increasingly fragile.
Imagine the following scenario: A simple history teacher from Kryvyi Rih is accidentally propelled to the Presidency of Ukraine after a video of him denouncing the country’s rampant corruption went viral. This tale of a political newcomer-turned-President is the plot of Ukraine’s most famous TV series called The Servant of the People. On 21 April 2019, however, it was the actor himself who turned the fictitious piece into reality. In spite of the fact that the newcomer lacks any professional experience in politics, he swept the incumbent Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko out of the office with an unprecedented vote share of 73%.
The above examples of other showmen claiming political offices suggest that Zelenskiy’s political ascent may be no isolated instance but rather part of a larger phenomenon that elevates entertainers to high-level political decision-makers. If so, what does it mean for the state of democracy?
Zelenskiy decided to do things differently. Instead of political rallies, television debates and street campaigning he toured the country with concerts and stand-up comedy acts, sometimes two shows a day – and he did so with thrilling success. Out of more than forty contenders for the presidency, the vast majority of Ukrainian trusted the 41-years old comedian to appeal most of the citizen’s concerns. Of course, the sky-rocketing approval rates of the president-elect can to a certain extent be explained by Poroshenko’s enormous disapproval ratings due to his lethargic fight against corruption and the absence of social policies. Nonetheless, Zelenskiy managed to score with promises on social security schemes and his pledge to end the ongoing civil war between pro-Russian separatists and pro-Western fighters in the east of the country during his campaign.
When scrutinising Zelenskiy’s presidential bid more closely, however, the image of the inexperienced Ukrainian comedian proves to be somewhat misleading. Behind all showmanship waits a team of experienced lawyers and business partners who run a tight ship that appeals mostly to the Ukrainian urban lower middle class. Similar to the case of the incumbent president of the United States and many more, Zelenskiy’s fine-tuned campaign machine feeds into the question of whether the entertainer-turned-politician model presents yet another layer in an established corrupt political system or whether some of the spectacular electoral wins are in fact a breeze of fresh air in declining and fragile democracies.
Like many other anti-establishment candidates, Zelenskiy promised a far-reaching democratic transformation with his fight against corruption at the forefront. In addition to lifting the immunity of judges and officials during legal proceedings, he pledged to form an anti-corruption committee under the scrutiny of an independent international selection committee while a special High Economic Court shall be empowered to investigate economic and financial crimes. In a nutshell, Zelenskiy promises to rely on a more democratic interpretation of the Ukrainian political system that is akin to traditional Populist vision of a direct link between the ruling and the ruled.
Notwithstanding all signs of democratic dawn in Ukraine and bold reform promises, dealing with rule of law issues, rampant corruption, civil war and hostile separatists are going to prove a Hercules task for Zelenskiy. The Economist Democracy Index quoted deficient rule of law and widespread nepotism as predominant issue in the ‘Authoritarian Regime’. Furthermore, Zelenskiy’s ties to Ukrainian business oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi, who had endorsed Zelenskiy in various interviews and owns the TV channel that airs Zelenskiy’s hit The Servant of the People, scratches the anti-establishment image of the President.
While one can hardly estimate the kind of country Ukraine will become under President Zelenskiy, his bold announcements on fighting corruption contrasted by hazy relationships with oligarchs and old companions leave one with a bitter taste. At the same time, it should be borne in mind that Ukraine displays a particular heavy track record of nepotism, corruption and unfair elections in Europe. Former President Viktor Juschtschenko suffered severe disfigurement as a result of a TCDD poisoning by government agents while his successor President Viktor Yanukovych had to seek asylum in Russia over the violent Euromaidan protests. Given these troublesome examples, beating an establishment candidate and an elite circle by means of free and fair elections must be considered a great leap forward to becoming a liberal consolidated democracy. Can comedians then change the world for the better?
On the one hand, the pattern of showmen using their popularity to put themselves in the spotlight of political arenas as antidotes to corrupt political elites may just be the latest incarnation or franchise of a wave of Populist anti-establishment politics. And indeed, one shouldn’t underestimate the danger of political newcomers using their power to challenge democracy and its institutions. On the other hand, the extraordinary story of the Ukrainian 2019 presidential election sparked enormous international attention, including a public debate in the Kyiv Olympic Stadium in front of 22,000 people, and seemed to ease the impact of social and political problems by means of bringing a positive outlook to grim situations. Democratic systems are meant to provide this sort of equal arena where all people compete for political ideas - with the parliamentary elections only a few months away, it is now on the Ukrainian people to foster constructive dialogue and to stand up for democracy, to hold the government to account and to make sure that comedy does not douse our world with cynicism, replacing hope with hollow laughter.