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The Answer to Ukraine’s Problems Is...a Comedian?

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, triumphing in Ukraine's first round of presidential elections, has become the world's latest entertainer-politician.

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Last night was hardly Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s first time on stage. And, after advancing to the second round of Ukraine’s presidential elections with a double-digit lead over the incumbent president, it will certainly not be his last.

Speaking from the stage to a crowd of supporters and journalists at his Kyiv campaign headquarters—a headquarters replete with ping-pong tables, foosball and free liquor—Zelenskiy had plenty of digs at President Petro Poroshenko as the results came in. “There are many exit polls—there is only one winner,” Zelenskiy said, mocking one of Poroshenko’s slogans during the campaign (“There are many candidates—there is only one president”).

The 41-year-old Zelenskiy, an actor and comedian born into a Jewish family in a largely Russian-speaking industrial city in southern Ukraine, may well become the next president of Ukraine when he and Petro Poroshenko square off in the second round on April 21. With almost 90 percent of the votes counted by Monday afternoon, Zelenskiy had captured 30 percent of the vote compared to Poroshenko’s 16 percent—a lead greater than almost all pre-election polls had predicted, and one that left former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, jailed under previous president Viktor Yanukovych, out of the running in third place.

Five years after the bloody revolution that ousted the pro-Kremlin Yanukovych, Ukraine continues to fight a war with Russian-led forces in the country’s east, a war that’s now estimated to have taken 13,000 lives. The country continues to be plagued by corruption and poverty, and poll after poll shows the vast majority of Ukrainians dissatisfied with life in their country. Now, those dissatisfied voters seem to have placed their faith in a celebrity whose only experience as a politician is pretending to be one on TV.

Since 2015, Zelenskiy has played a Ukrainian president on “Servant of the People” (Sluga Naroda in Russian, Sluha Narodu in Ukrainian; the show is mostly in Russian), broadcast on the 1+1 network majority-owned by Ukrainian oligarch and Poroshenko foe Ihor Kolomoyskyi.

Vasyl Holoborodko, Zelenskiy’s character, is a divorced schoolteacher who lives with his parents. He manages to become president of Ukraine after a video of him ranting about corruption goes viral: He becomes a symbolic everyman, fighting the country’s ruling oligarchical classes.

Last December 31, in a time slot usually reserved for the president’s New Year’s Eve address, Zelenskiy declared on 1+1 that he’d be running for president in real life. “Unlike our great politicians, I did not want to make promises in vain,” he said at the time. “But now, just a few minutes before the New Year, I can promise you I’ll do it in the right way.”

As Zelenskiy, the actor and fictional president, became Zelenskiy, the actual real-life candidate for president, the lines between the two started to blur. The campaign events that Zelenskiy has held across Ukraine haven’t been political rallies but shows, complete with comedy routines and song-and-dance numbers.

At the final event last Friday night in a suburb of Kyiv, Zelenskiy took the time to call children up on stage for a song and took a few digs at his main opponent, Petro Poroshenko. “Why does Poroshenko want a second term?” Zelenskiy asked the crowd, in a canned line he’s used at other shows across the country. “Because he doesn’t want a first term”—in prison.

Zelenskiy and his team haven’t been shy about using “Servant of the People” for campaign purposes. The third season of the show debuted shortly before election day and showed a fictional president in jail—widely seen as a reference to Poroshenko.

The show has also helped them around Ukraine’s election laws. The day before the elections, when there’s not supposed to be any campaigning or political advertising, Kolomoyskyi’s 1+1 channel featured several episodes of Zelenskiy’s show, as well as a documentary dubbed by Zelenskiy about an American with a not-dissimilar story to his own: Ronald Reagan. (1+1 claimed that the shows didn’t violate campaign laws since they featured Zelenskiy as an actor, not a politician).

The current president and his supporters point to precisely these moves when warning the electorate about Zelenskiy. As the results came in Sunday, Poroshenko said in an address that, in his view, Zelenskiy is not only incapable of holding the office, but he’s incapable of facing down the country’s biggest enemy. Russian President Vladimir Putin, Poroshenko said at his campaign headquarters, “dreams of a soft, pliant, tender, giggling, inexperienced, weak, ideologically amorphous and politically undecided president of Ukraine. Are we really going to give him that opportunity?”

Poroshenko also made a point of mentioning the man who’s been rumored to be behind Zelenskiy’s campaign, oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi, currently living in Israel. Some have speculated that Kolomoyskyi is behind Zelenskiy’s campaign as a means to get back at Poroshenko and avoid Ukrainian criminal charges for his alleged role in defrauding Ukraine’s PrivatBank of billions of dollars. Both the candidate and oligarch have denied any connection. But last night, Poroshenko called Zelenskiy “the puppet of Kolomoyskyi,” and made it clear that Zelenskiy’s alleged connection with Kolomoyskyi will feature prominently in the second-round contest.

From Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger to, of course, Donald Trump, this is not the first time an electorate has opted to lob an untested celebrity into the heights of power.

Almost two decades ago, contemplating Arnold Schwarzenegger’s run to become governor of California, political scientist Darrell M. West wrote about why celebrities are often able to “leapfrog” established career politicians. They’re able to attract greater media attention—being better in front of the camera—and raise more funds while, above all, also being perceived as standing outside the usual political class. “In an era of extensive citizen cynicism about conventional politicians,” West wrote, “voters often see celebrities as white knights from outside the political process who are too rich to be bought and thereby deserving of trust from the electorate.”

It’s a description that could apply now, a continent away, to the Zelenskiy phenomenon in Ukraine. “I think many voters see Zelenskiy as more genuine and honest than ‘normal’ politicians,” Nina Jankowicz, a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center, told me. Zelenskiy voters she’s talked to across Ukraine “see him as someone who’s not beholden to the powers that be, not beholden to the oligarchs, and that he’s a better choice than anyone else.” With his comedic and critical focus on the current political system, Zelenskiy is also less like a Martin Sheen on The West Wing or a Kevin Spacey on House of Cards, said Jankowicz, and more like a Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert-type personality.

But like many celebrity politicians before him, Zelenskiy has been criticized for being blank slate on policy—a serious concern in one of Europe’s poorest countries, and the only one on the continent with a war on its territory. Journalists attempting to cover the campaign have repeatedly been confronted by its complete lack of platform. “I spoke to many jubilant Zelensky campaign folks as results came in last night,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalist Christopher Miller wrote on Twitter, “[and] nobody had details about his plans for Ukraine.”

Should Zelenskiy win and become Ukraine’s next president, Jankowicz and others warn, he needs to surround himself with a team of intelligent, astute advisors. There are signs he is starting to do that, responding to pressure for him to elaborate on policy plans, as well as Poroshenko challenging him to a debate.

But with a first-round victory behind him, it’s far from clear sailing for Zelenskiy. He has a lot of enthusiastic, younger Ukrainians on his side—but not all. If those who voted for one of the other three dozen vanquished candidates in the first round wind up lining up behind Poroshenko, Zelenskiy could yet be defeated. And if he wins, he will be facing a situation few heads of state would envy.

“I don’t think anything good about [Zelenskiy],” says Alyona, 31, who lives and works in the capital. “I don’t think he’s a wise or capable politician. I think he’s a marionette in the hands of bandits.” From a small city, a few hour’s drive from Kyiv, she says she wasn’t able to vote because she wasn’t able to change her address before the election. Still, she says she wasn’t a fan of any of the candidates to begin with—and, like many other Ukrainians, is pessimistic, regardless of whether April 21 brings a comedian president to power.

“I feel bad about the thought that things could get worse.”