Just over a decade ago, the late Robin Williams starred in a comedy called ‘Man of the Year’. In the movie, Wiliams plays a satirical talk show host who claims he can do a better job of running the country than the incumbent president. Following this off-hand comment, his fans start a grassroots campaign that eventually gets him elected into the Oval Office. Such is the underdog story of an honest patriot who wants the best for his country and its people. Fast forward to 2019 and you have Volodymyr Zelensky running a presidential campaign based on a Williams-esque TV Show unsubtly called ‘Servant of the People’. Not only is he running, but he is currently leading in the polls. Some have him breaking away by over 10 percent. With under a month to go until election day, this novel presidential bid is fascinating for three reasons: his political party’s namesake TV Show, the slick but relatable campaign, and the country where all this is taking place. The novelty of the campaign cannot be emphasised enough, Bloomberg article’s that liken it to Trump 2016 or Atlantic Council articles calling it a ‘disaster’ fail to appreciate the campaigns ingenuity in adapting to the evolving political landscape in Ukraine. Whilst a quick google search of his name shows articles littered with ‘comedian’, ‘joker’ and ‘puppet’ in the headlines, the numbers show his campaign is anything but a laughing matter.
The TV Show ‘Servant of the People’ first aired on the Ukrainian television channel 1+1 in late 2015. It has since been added to Netflix and racked up over 10 million views on Youtube. The reach of the show has been immense, having recently visited Kyiv, everyone has an opinion on the show. ‘Servant of the People’ has Zelensky play a thirty-something high school history teacher that becomes president after a video of him ranting about government corruption in Ukraine is shared by a student and subsequently goes viral. The two seasons that follow are a satirical masterpiece commenting on the dire state of Ukrainian politics. The show openly criticizes the kleptocratic corruption that plagues the country and does not shy away from the patronal legacies that pervade the country from top to bottom. Arguably, the show does not criticise anything new or previously unheard of, but what it does very well is tap into the popular disenfranchisement with the status quo. Moreover, it offers a clear vision of an alternative, optimistic future for Ukraine: a Ukraine free of corruption; with a functioning judicial system; and a prosperous private sector, a whole two seasons of it, with a third scheduled for release just days before citizens head to vote in their next president. The whole project is immensely well curated. Zelensky’s team has done a fantastic job of walking the fine line between propaganda and artistic-expression. Take the use of now-convicted former president Yanukovych’s unnecessarily exuberant palace as a setting in Season 1, every Ukrainian will recognise it, but it is not once called by its name. The parallels that are maintained throughout are so accurate that any Ukrainian can identify them, yet they do not explicitly impersonate anyone or anything in the current administration and are, therefore, legally permissible. This has become an important development because the incumbent president, Petro Poroshenko, is currently trying to ban the third season from airing on Ukrainian TV citing its supposed propagandistic nature. The production team’s omission of character likeness has ensured that any legal case brought against the campaign will be hard to sustain, instead, any attempts to ban the show will only serve to stir a population already sensitive to encroachment on basic freedoms.
Granted, the campaign itself is named word-for-word after a TV Show and it borrows a few direct quotes here and there, but it is a lot more sophisticated than mainstream political pundits will have you believe. Arguably, the use of the TV show is in itself ingenious, virtually launching a subconscious presidential bid three years prior; increasing Zelensky’s visibility and creating a political narrative for him to hit the ground running come the election cycle. Notwithstanding this creative PR, the campaign has still been burdened with such labels populist and anti-establishment by commentators. These labels, in their typical sense, are misplaced- in the case of Ukraine, any shift away from the marauding establishment would be a very welcome development. To rely on the show alone, however, would be inadequate to maintain the momentum required to win the presidency, it would also leave him open to criticism of being inexperienced and, therefore, un-presidential. A president needs to be well versed in all matters public-affairs and have a strong stance on contentious policy questions. Zelensky has tackled this inexperience head on, with what can only be described as a Casey Neistat-inspired form of vlogging, documenting every aspect of his campaign. Casey Neistat revolutionized the Youtube Vlog format by combining high-quality editing from decades’ experience in cinematography with a raw, amateur-ish production using hand-held cameras and smartphones to film the content. The result feels real and relatable. Zelensky’s campaign vlogs on Youtube and Facebook include roundtable discussions with policy makers and advisors, providing a rare glimpse into the decision-making process beneath the surface of a political campaign. This serves a dual purpose, the specialists around him assuage any concerns over the absence of policy-making experience, and secondly, it marks an unprecedented move to increase political transparency and accountability in Ukraine. A final campaign touch that is worth mentioning is the introduction of a ‘dream team’. This ‘dream team’ is based loosely on the fantasy league concept we are all familiar with from our sporting pursuits. In an unprecedented move away from technocracy, the electorate is able to draft and recommend civil servants to join the President’s Cabinet of Ministers. This is e-democracy in action and takes the work of Beppe Grillo’s 5SM to another level. Whether he wins or not does not matter at this point, Zelensky has revolutionized political campaigning and created an e-democracy blueprint for others to follow.