As comic goes head-to-head with Ukraine’s president, is the election becoming a...

As comic goes head-to-head with Ukraine’s president, is the election becoming a circus?

By Luke Vargas   
Published
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko submits to a blood test after a challenge by his opponent, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Courtesy: Petro Poroshenko
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko submits to a blood test after a challenge by his opponent, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. (Courtesy: Petro Poroshenko)

The first round of Ukraine's presidential election was a free-for-all lacking in policy details. The runoff is shaping up for more of the same.

UNITED NATIONS – Days after Ukrainians voted in a first round of presidential elections, a wide field of candidates has narrowed to two men: incumbent President Petro Poroshenko and political novice Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a comedian best known for playing a president on TV.

Nina Jankowicz is a global fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute.

“This was the most healthy and free and fair votes that I think Ukraine has seen since its independence. It is extremely democratic just to not know who exactly will be in the second round. There was a big question about that.”

But experts worry the upcoming runoff election is becoming a farce.

Challenger Volodymyr Zelenskiy (UkrinformTV/YouTube.com)

On Monday, Poroshenko challenged Zelenskiy to a televised debate, an offer the actor accepted via a flashy online video in which he said the debate should be held in Ukraine’s massive Olympic stadium. And Zelenskiy had another demand: that both men submit to blood tests to check for alcohol and drug use, a media spectacle that unfolded on Friday.

“Before, the campaign was very light on policy. Now I would say that the policy element of the debate is almost entirely non-existent, and that is what’s worrisome to me.”

Matthew Kupfer, a staff writer at the Kyiv Post, agrees:

“There’s always been showmanship in Ukrainian politics. The concern is that, at least as an American when I look at this, I see shadows of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, where the media has taken a lot of criticism for allowing the showmanship, scandal and entertainment aspects of a presidential race to eclipse the policy plans and real politics.”

Zelenskiy’s anti-establishment streak fuels his appeal, but steering Ukraine through economic challenges and conflict with Russia requires as-yet untested abilities to assemble skilled advisers and withstand corruption – the kinds of skills that can’t be measured with more televised blood tests or viral videos.

“Should it turn out to be three weeks of a circus, then really the independent media should focus very much on pushing them on issues.”

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