It makes for some good headlines. It’s April the First and Ukraine has just completed the first round of presidential elections and the winner is Volodymyr Zelensky, a TV comedian, gaining roughly 30% of the vote, a substantial lead over the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko, 16% and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko who won only 13%. Now the run off between Poroshenko and Zelensky puts the latter ahead as a clear favourite.
How ludicrous can politics become? Zelensky rose to fame playing a history teacher who inadvertently becomes president of the country in the sitcom “Servant of the People” when a video of him ranting against the government goes value. It’s basically what Jonathan Pie dreams of every night when he goes to sleep on his spit-flecked pillow. The Servant of the People is now the name of his political party set up by his television company, which is now running his campaign. Zelensky has toured the country doing stand up gigs in lieu of rallies but has not attended debates nor does he expose himself to interviews in the press. In fact, Zelensky does his best to not get in the way of his TV alter ego Vasyl Holoborodko, who through three seasons, has established himself as a beacon of honesty and daring reform.
But what are Zelensky’s/Holoborodko’s actual politics? On one level, theirs is an anti-corruption, anti-establishment platform recognisable from any number of populist movements currently running through Europe. For once, the outcry against the corruption isn’t hyperbole, Ukraine is comes 130th in the 2017 transparency index which ranks countries according to levels of corruption. The UK is in 8th position, with New Zealand top as the least corrupt country in the world and Somalia at the the bottom. The political establishment represented by Poroshenko – a billionaire oligarch – has run an unconvincing move to de-oligarch Ukraine and ran his re-election campaign on a bombastic nationalistic platform. His slogan was “Army. Language. Faith.”
As with the rise of populist movements everywhere, the inadequacy of incumbents and the establishment have gone a long way to securing unlikely victories. In Italy, Matteo Renzi’s Partito Democratico was a combination of neoliberalism and social policy lip service that looked uncannily like the Christian Democrats who had run Italy for decades. When TV comedian Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star Movement emerged, it captured the imagination of many who were uninspired by the ossified political system. Likewise, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign promised more of the same whereas Donald Trump’s TV clown figure promised to ‘drain the swamp’: a radical shake up of the Washington establishment.
Why not vote for these jokers when the other jokers aren’t even funny? Well, first of all, not all countries are that corrupt and yet perceptions of the political class and corruption still run to hysteria levels. So with the USA in 16th place, the swamp is soggy but not that deep. Secondly, locating corruption at the political head allows everyone to ignore the very, very long tail. Italy is positioned at the 54th place but you are as likely to pay a friendly bribe to a doctor, a dentist, a notary and never consider it more than ‘the way things are done’ while railing about corrupt politicians in Rome. Likewise in Ukraine, the education and health system suffer widespread corruption as well as the financial sector. The root and branch reforms necessary tend to be ignored in favour of some diversionary twigs.
And of course these comedy messiahs have a tendency for a certain clayness to their feet. Trump has managed to make significantly more corrupt and his personal business practices dip into observable illegality and bad faith. Beppe Grillo has a criminal conviction that disqualifies him from personally standing for public office. And there are rumours that behind Zelensky’s presidential bid is the hand of Ihor Kolomoisky, an oligarch who owns the TV station that brought Zelensky to fame.
Ultimately, we need to look at the electorate as well as the politicians. We need to look at ourselves and what we have become. Exasperated, disgruntled, peeved. Political discourse has been twitterfied. We now get blistering rants, epic takedowns, opponents get owned, destroyed, burned. No one clicks on nuance, or sophisticated, or analysis, or balanced, or well-researched. And we certainly don’t want to hear anything which might tell us that actually our lives are not that bad. Honestly, we’re doing pretty well. Yes, there’s inequality. Yes, there is room for improvement, but our lives on the whole are verifiably improved. We are living in post-ideological times in which the political movers ape the fury and rancour of ideology but then underneath it’s the same old, same old non-ideological gaming of the system. They arrive like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington but leave as A Face in the Crowd. Ultimately this plague of truth-telling comics will only lose their sparkle when we as a people decide to get serious.