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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.

John Bleasdale is a writer based in Italy. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, Il Manifesto, as well as and


2 Comments on "The Killing Joke"

  1. “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.”

    True, but a sentiment that could equally have been expressed in 1906 to dissuade people from voting for the Labour Party. Instead of a former comedian, they were led much more controversially (at that time) by a working class bastard son of bastard. One with no formal education and strong religious, pacifist and anti-monarchist views. Zelensky is a credible establishment figure when compared to Hardie in relative terms. Labour wanted to shake up a system that had seen the UK become the richest and most powerful country in the world, the British working class were better off than any other working class in Europe. So were people wrong to vote for Labour in the 1906 election?. If it was in human nature to settle for what you have then we would still be hunter gatherers.

    The majority of people in the west have suffered a fall in their living standards over the past 15 years, not a huge fall but enough to feel it. They will blame their politicians for that and seek alternatives, it’s natural behaviour. My advice to centrist politicians would be to stop promising what you have no intention of delivering, or deliver what you have promised, perhaps then you may regain the trust of the public.

    The jury is out as to whether these so called populists are a good, bad or neutral phenomena. I look at Trump in the USA and ignoring the rhetoric I see George W Bush without the wars. Orban and Erdogan, who are often lumped in as populists, are though of so badly by their publics that they have been elected multiple times. I think for anyone who achieves power, reality bites, there are limits on what you can do. Outside of FPTP if you want to stay in power then you always have to serve the interests of the majority, or damn close to it.

  2. Lots of agreement but this is the same “blame the public” rhetoric. When good people refuse to act in clear cases of public good, and here I quote the example of Merkels regal decisions on migration, people eventually hold their noses and vote for some questionable people who seem to be willing to act. Fear and self interest may be at the root but some element of realism but our politicians would avoid the worse examples of this problem.

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