Zelenskiy’s victory in Ukraine was extraordinary. But now he faces a real test

By Katya Gorchinskaya

On Sunday night, Volodymyr Zelenskiy jumped up and down on stage as exit poll results flashed on a giant screen behind him. He now knew he would be Ukraine’s next president. Zelenskiy kissed his wife, high-fived his team, and turned around to send his first message via hundreds of reporters and TV cameras that crammed his election headquarters. It was meant for the post-Soviet countries: “Look at us, anything is possible.”

Zelenskiy’s own story is proof of that, and nothing short of extraordinary. A year ago he was a comic, a character from a TV series, portraying a simple man who becomes president by chance after a video recording of his rant about corruption goes viral. On Sunday, the hologram became reality, as Zelenskiy’s victory smashed national political records.

With almost all votes counted, Zelenskiy, 41, received an unprecedented 73% of the national vote. His rival, incumbent Petro Poroshenko, received just 25%. Zelenskiy – who continued to film his TV series and tour the country as the frontman of his comedy show during the election campaign – became the first president since independence in 1991 to be backed by the majority of voters in all but one region of Ukraine. He is also the first with zero political experience: indeed, one would be hard-pressed to list any of his policies.

And yet Ukraine picked him out of 39 contenders who originally ran for the job (the number of candidates is also a record).

“Could I ever imagine that I, a simple guy from Kryvyi Rih, would be fighting for the presidency against a person who we confidently and definitively elected president of Ukraine in 2014?” Zelenskiy asked during his debate with Poroshenko two days ahead of the run-off vote. Zelenskiy was the only candidate who was instantly recognisable in any household that has a TV, but he was not of the existing political class and therefore was seen as a fresh face.

In 2014, Poroshenko also rode the wave of this longing for change. The revolution of dignity had just ended, forcing his predecessor, a corrupt president, to flee. It was followed by the conflict with Russia, which resulted in the annexation of Crimea and a war in Ukraine’s east.

Poroshenko promised “new life” in that election – but failed to deliver. Five years on, the war continues to bleed the nation, and so does the rule of old political elites, which is a major cause of Ukraine’s corruption.

The new president is expected to tackle that. A poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology showed that 39% of Ukrainians believe he will reduce the cost of utility bills; 36% want him to strip immunity from prosecution from MPs, judges and the president himself; and a further 32% want him to start or speed up the investigation of major corruption cases.

Zelenskiy will fail in at least one of these expectations. There is next to nothing the president can do about the cost of utilities – not just because it’s a painful reflection of the state of the economy, but because such decisions are beyond his powers. It’s much easier to introduce bills that would strip immunity from prosecution. Indeed, Zelenskiy promised during the campaign that it would be among his first submissions to parliament, along with a bill on the impeachment of presidents. Zelenskiy’s team (who dubbed themselves ZeTeam) have said such bills are “almost written”. Historically, however, parliament has blocked similar initiatives because immunity has great value for corrupt MPs and judges.

ZeTeam has floated the idea of dismissing parliament if it fails to cooperate, but stressed it would prefer “plan A”, constructive cooperation.