Outsider in

Voters in the recent Ukrainian presidential election had some views that might strike a chord in the UK, says the political caseworker from the North West

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Last week, the Ukrainian electorate selected Volodymyr Zelensky to be their president, with a majority of 73 per cent. The story of this former comic actor, who once played a president on television, now actually being elected president is well known across Europe. It is telling of these politically turbulent times that people do not appear shocked by the election of a politically inexperienced comic to the presidency of Ukraine.

The week following the election I found myself in a small village in Ukraine, just south of the town of Buchach. The village itself feels completely cut off from more developed states in the European Union across the border. The fields surrounding the village are still worked by horses and much of the labour is menial. To access the village, you must pass through treacherous roads that seem not to have been paved since Soviet times. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to hear what average people in rural Ukraine really felt about the presidential elections.

Speaking to people in the village, whether they voted for Zelensky (pictured) or his opponent Poroshenko, you hear how fed up they feel. The first issue that was raised with me was the cost of bills. Many in the village are unable to afford gas throughout the winter to heat their homes. They either rely on collecting wood for fires or heating just one room. People are also fed-up with political corruption in the country. There is a clear lack of trust in politicians and no faith that they are able to change. Finally, many people I spoke with expressed a deep-rooted fear of the country’s relationship with Russia.

It is amid all these concerns that the Ukrainian people voted a political outsider in Zelensky to the presidency. However, I was interested to hear what people really thought about the comic turned president. What did people feel about the result of the election?

During the campaign, Zelensky had been able to offer a more optimistic message

The first person I spoke to actually voted for Poroshenko. He had felt that the incumbent was the more knowledgeable and technically able politician. Considering Ukraine’s ongoing conflict with the Russian-backed separatists, he felt Poroshenko’s experience was needed. He believed that Poroshenko had the backing of EU leaders and was the better statesman.

When asked whether he knew why people had voted for Zelensky, he understood people’s desire for change. During the campaign, Zelensky had been able to offer a more optimistic message. Although he criticised the new president for being very non-committal on key areas, he understood that Zelensky offered something refreshing. But he made a strong criticism of Zelensky supporters, feeling that they were too willing to listen to his thoughts without considering whether they could be implemented.

One Zelensky supporter actually recognised that he was a risk and that there were even suggestions of corruption concerning the new president. Much had been made in the campaign of Zelensky’s connections with the oligarch Kolomoisky, who had been a prominent supporter of the candidate. But this voter felt that the allegations of corruption against Poroshenko meant that even if Zelensky was corrupt, it would make little difference. How could the political situation be worse?

The overriding reason people said they voted Zelensky was change. This was no more clear than when talking to a nun from a nearby convent. She expressed a real feeling of optimism in the vote for Zelensky, suggesting that people finally had the prospect of positive change. She felt that the vote for a non-politician was what the country needed and showed to her that people yearned for progress and togetherness. Others echoed this sentiment, feeling that a non-political president was best placed to tackle the corruption plaguing Ukrainian politics.

There were two final views on the recent election that were of interest, especially to a UK citizen. The first came from a mother in the village who was upset by the recent campaign. She explained how the election had been polarising and divisive. Her Facebook account had been flooded with people arguing about the election and making direct and hostile attacks on their opponents. The atmosphere left her feeling a sense of worry about the future of the country, reminiscent of those in the UK suffering Brexit anxiety.

The second thought came from a young man who had voted for the first time in this election. Insightfully, he compared the election of Zelensky to that of Trump in America and the leave vote in the UK. He felt Zelensky was a populist, telling people what they wanted to hear, with few plans for how to effect real change. He was nether a fan of Poroshenko nor Zelensky, but understood that people, not just in Ukraine, are using their voices at the ballot to send messages to politicians across the globe. He feels that people are fed up. People want change. Right now, people will vote for whoever seems most willing to break the status quo. Politicians need to take note.

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