The first round of Ukraine’s presidential election went overwhelmingly to Volodymyr Zelenskiy, but his victory in round two is by no means self-evident—especially if his rival, incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, plays his cards right.
Ironically, Poroshenko’s three main strengths are Zelenskiy’s three main weaknesses. Poroshenko has a distinguished record (with a variety of blemishes, of course). He is a skilled political professional, who’s proven that he can lead a country and represent it with dignity on the international stage. And he has a sympathetic personality, which he reveals in smaller gatherings. In contrast, Zelenskiy has no political or statesmanlike record, except as a showman. He has no political skills or politically relevant professionalism to speak of. And, while the television president he plays is a genuinely nice guy, Zelenskiy’s personality remains a mystery. Ukrainians know Vasyl Holoborodko, the fictional president he plays in the television series Servant of the People, and not the man who plays him.
Unfortunately for Poroshenko, most Ukrainians ignore his achievements, decry his skills, and think of him as distant and unapproachable. They’re wrong on the first two counts, but not quite incorrect on the third.
Fortunately for Zelenskiy, most Ukrainians confuse him with Holoborodko and conclude that he already has a raft of impressive achievements, is a skilled politician, and a thoroughly honest guy. They’re wrong on the first two counts, but might be right about the third.
Poroshenko’s main problem is that few Ukrainians actually know him. If he wants to catch up with Zelenskiy, he must make every effort to reach out to the population in the weeks before the second round. A barnstorming tour, impromptu visits to schools, churches, or firms, townhall meetings with no-holds-barred opportunities for people to ask questions, and a standing invitation to Zelenskiy to join him in any and all fora are the way to go. Poroshenko has nothing to lose. He can only gain from meeting regular Ukrainians in unstructured, informal settings, letting them vent and insult him, taking it all with grace and dignity, and being utterly honest about all the failures of his administration. He should even apologize. In a word, Poroshenko should become Holoborodko and thereby challenge Zelenskiy to show his true colors, as Zelenskiy, and not as Holoborodko.
Zelenskiy’s main problem is that, while he enjoys Holoborodko’s aura and popularity, he cannot avoid speaking to the people and being a tad more concrete about his plans as president. Letting Holoborodko do the campaigning for him worked for the first round; it’s highly unlikely to work for the second round, when voters will want to know what, specifically, they may get with Zelensky as president. But Zelenskiy really has nothing to offer but vague bromides and populist calls to arms. Small wonder that he continues to be maddeningly vague (even in a recent Radio Liberty interview, which asked him no hard questions).
In contrast to Poroshenko, who has nothing to lose from more public exposure, Zelenskiy has everything to lose. The more people know him, the more they’re likely to see that he’s just a television president.
If Poroshenko does indeed start reaching out, he will compel Zelenskiy to do the same. Every embarrassing question Poroshenko answers, every apology he makes is, thus, a gain for him and a potential loss for Zelenskiy, who will have to be just as honest about his connections to Russia, Ukraine’s oligarchs, and Ihor Kolomoisky as well as about his villa in sunny Italy.
The challenge for Poroshenko is whether he’ll be able, in the next two weeks, to overcome a habit developed and consolidated over the last five years. Will he be able to become an American-style politician who rolls up his sleeves, takes hits, and speaks honestly or will he let Zelenskiy get away with playing Holoborodko?
Alexander J. Motyl is professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark.