A MEMORIAL COMPLEX featuring photographs of brave protesters fills Kiev’s Independence Square, or Maidan. Displays reproduce Ukrainians’ Facebook posts from key moments during the movement that overthrew the former president, Viktor Yanukovych, five years ago. “I stopped counting covered bodies,” reads one, recalling the day when police opened fire on demonstrators. “How many of them are there?” The revolution was dubbed the “Revolution of Dignity”. Yet ahead of a presidential election on March 31st, the campaign is anything but dignified.
Among more than 40 candidates, the front-runner is Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian and actor best known for playing a teacher who becomes president in a popular television show called “Servant of the Nation”. He is now attempting to turn make-believe into reality, presenting himself as a fresh face to a population frustrated with the old elite. “People want to show the authorities the middle finger, and he is playing the role of this middle finger,” says Volodymyr Fesenko, a political analyst.
The two other main contenders are the incumbent president, Petro Poroshenko, and a former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko. Many reformers had pinned their hopes on Slava Vakarchuk, a rock star who declined to run. Anatoliy Hrytsenko, a former defence minister, has the backing of many opinion-formers but few voters. The choice in the second-round run-off, on April 21st, will be between the lesser of two evils, and the stakes are high.
Ukrainians are frustrated with their post-revolutionary leadership. Three-quarters of them say the country is headed in the wrong direction, despite the fact that Ukraine has moved closer to Europe (it now has visa-free travel to the EU, for instance). That is because the central promise of the revolution—uprooting the country’s deeply corrupt, oligarch-controlled political system—remains unfulfilled. A recent Supreme Court decision to strike down a key anti-graft law passed in 2015 exemplifies the backsliding. Falling living standards, rising utility bills and a simmering war with Russia in the country’s east have meant steep sacrifices for ordinary people. Polls show that more Ukrainians now mistrust their own Rada (parliament) than they do the Russian media, which spew propaganda to fuel the conflict.
Nowhere is the oligarchs’ enduring influence more evident than in the campaign. A successful presidential run requires exposure on television, but the main channels are still owned by oligarchs. “We made a revolution, but you can’t win elections when the oligarchs control the media,” says Vitaliy Shabunin, an anti-corruption activist. The main oligarchic contest is between President Poroshenko, a sweets magnate whose net worth has grown while in office and who owns his own TV channel, and Ihor Kolomoisky, a billionaire who saw his bank, PrivatBank, nationalised and accused of fraud. Mr Zelensky’s ties to Mr Kolomoisky have raised eyebrows. His show runs on Mr Kolomoisky’s network, 1+1, which has promoted Mr Zelensky’s presidential bid; his circle includes people close to the oligarch. (Both men deny any links.) Yet some reformers and many voters see him, however imperfect, as the only chance for change. “We’ve had lots of experienced folk, but haven’t got anything from them,” says a schoolteacher eyeing the Maidan memorial.
One evening earlier this month, Mr Zelensky could be found on set in a chilly Kiev basement, in costume as his man-of-the-people-turned-president character, Vasyl Holoborodko. The show’s latest season, set to air in the heat of the campaign, serves as Mr Zelensky’s main political advertising. In one scene being filmed, Mr Zelensky’s character prepares to take the oath of office. A trio of historical figures—Plato, Prince Vladimir of Kiev and the Slavic philosopher Grigory Skovoroda—emerge from the shadows to advise the would-be president. “What is power?” Plato muses.
What Mr Zelensky would do with power remains a mystery. “I want to do something to change the mistrust towards politicians,” Mr Zelensky says, unhelpfully. He has offered little indication of what exactly he plans to do, beyond vague assurances to maintain Ukraine’s Western course, improve the investment climate and end the war in the east. He has promised to crowdsource his cabinet and his policies. When pressed to name world leaders he admired, Mr Zelensky invoked Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist, and France’s Emmanuel Macron, a liberal technocrat. Western diplomats find him frighteningly unprepared. Many fret that Vladimir Putin will gobble him up like one of Mr Poroshenko’s chocolate bars.
The old guard hopes that voters will opt for experience once more. Mr Poroshenko is running on a platform of “army, faith and language”, pushing patriotism to distract from his failure to fight corruption. Ms Tymoshenko has reinvented herself as a populist, raging against the IMF and its demands that Ukraine raise its gas prices to market rates. Both hope to win the likely run-off with Mr Zelensky on April 21st, and then to compete for control over the Rada in a parliamentary election due in October.
What worries observers more than who will win is whether the election will be seen as legitimate. Many fear Russian disinformation and hacking. A greater threat, however, may come from the candidates themselves. Both Mr Poroshenko and Ms Tymoshenko have faced allegations of vote-buying. The presence of private armies with murky loyalties, an angry populace and an abundance of weapons makes for a volatile mix, as seen last week when dozens of officers were wounded in clashes with ultranationalists opposed to Mr Poroshenko. If Ukrainians wake up on April 1st distrusting the results of the first round, it will be no laughing matter.