KIEV, Ukraine—TV comic actor-turned politician Volodymyr Zelensky defeated sitting president Petro Poroshenko in Ukraine's second round run-off presidential election Sunday.
Despite having no political experience, Zelensky pulled in more than 73 percent of the votes to Poroshenko's about 25 percent. Voter turnout was estimated at more than 62 percent.
Recent Stories in National Security
Zelensky had led Poroshenko by a wide margin in the polls up until Sunday's vote. In a debate between the two candidates held two days earlier on April 19 in the National Olympic Stadium in the centre of Kiev, Poroshenko failed to score any significant points against his challenger.
There were dire predictions about what would happen if Zelensky were to be elected. As President Poroshenko cast his ballot on Sunday, he issued a warning to Ukraine about taking a risk by choosing the TV comedian "because this is not funny. Well, at first it can be a bit funny and then it might hurt afterwards."
Poroshenko supporters said Ukraine would have decreased chances of joining the EU and NATO, and could fail to receive IMF funding. They also predicted disruption of the markets and the economy as a whole.
However, observers of the electoral process in Ukraine told the Washington Free Beacon the election of Zelensky could actually be a positive step for the country.
1. This is the only former Soviet republic where democracy works.
The former USSR republics that are independent nations are a constellation of dictatorships. Aside from Ukraine, only the Republic of Georgia has a presidential electoral process that does not have a pre-determined winner—but the position is largely ceremonial and not with the powers of a chief executive. Zelensky will be the sixth president in the Ukraine's post-Soviet history, with only one of those six having been able to win a second term.
On the day of the election, one former U.S. DoD official in Kiev meeting with senior aides to President Poroshenko stated "today in Kiev it feels like the fall of Saigon," but then pointed out that this was simply the upper ranks of the presidential apparatus in a panic not knowing where they were going to end up when the new president takes over.
"The system here has produced a clean election, which is a real accomplishment," the official said. "And there is no street violence, there are no angry mobs massing in front of the presidential residence. It is a peaceful transition."
"I can speak just as a Ukrainian," said Zelensky after Poroshenko called to concede defeat. "Let the entire former Soviet Union look at us and see that anything is possible."
2. Ukraine needs to end the war in the East if it is going to move forward.
Zelensky inherits a number of pressing challenges when he takes office, not least of which is that the Crimea region illegally invaded by Russia in 2014 remains under occupation. The eastern Donbas regions of Lugansk and Donetsk are still a war zone in which Ukrainian military forces are fighting a low-boil conflict against Russian-backed separatists. Zelensky has vowed to end the conflict, which has been ebbing and flowing for years.
Prior to his election, the new president had suggested the start of an information war to broadcast Russian-language programming into these occupied regions. He also proposed paying pensions to the Ukrainians in these contested zones. If carried out, these initiatives would be a new challenge to Moscow's invasion of its western neighbor.
3. Corruption under Poroshenko made a new president necessary.
One of the agencies that has come under fire on a regular basis is the state defense industrial and arms trading company, Ukroboronprom. In the past few weeks, corruption charges were leveled against Igor Gladkovsky, the son of one Poroshenko's close allies, Oleg Gladkovsky, the deputy secretary of the National Security and Defense Council (RBNO). An official investigation by the Ukraine Anti-Corruption Bureau and State Prosecutor's Office charges that military spare parts were smuggled from Russia in 2015 and that those parts were then sold to the Ukrainian military through front companies. A number of the spares were used or not up to useable standards, and yet were sold at prices two to four times higher than standard rates.
"How you can have people in your inner circle linked to stealing from the military budget during a time that your army is at war against a Russian-backed force—on your own territory—and even worse Russia is the source of these bogus, overpriced spares," said another western diplomat in the week leading up to the election. This created an atmosphere where there remained little confidence in Poroshenko by the public at large.
Zelensky said one of the main goals of his candidacy was to "destroy this system [of corruption]."
4. Ukraine needed the unifying force provided by a popularly elected president.
Ukraine's political scene has long been dominated by a handful of oligarchs who control large numbers of strategic industries, banks, and other valuable assets. There have been several incidents in past years where one of the oligarchs has tried to turn out regional leaders in order to take over territory belonging to one of their rivals. What seems like the primacy of one power broker over another has caused a loss in a sense of a national identity.
The landslide by Zelensky may change that. "We have united Ukraine," he said when he and his wife went to the polling station to cast their ballots.
5. A clean election means Ukraine can continue its path to joining European institutions.
Naysayers had expressed skepticism at Zelensky's ability to effectively engage with EU leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and to give the NATO alliance sufficient confidence to consider the options for Ukraine to join the transatlantic alliance. Despite the new president having offered few specifics on these policy issues, those who have met with his advisers say he has a solid team capable of taking on these and other pressing issues.
Zelensky has said he will hold a public referendum on joining NATO. He has also promised to take back the territories invaded by Russia and that Moscow will pay reparations for the damage inflicted. The Donbas war has caused widespread devastation to Ukrainian industry and infrastructure, plus the deaths of some 13,000 people, with roughly 25 percent of that number civilians.