Jokers in the political pack

Jokers in the political pack
Voters from Ljubljana to Kyiv have welcomed the entry of comedians and satirists to the political sphere.
By Clare Nuttall in Glasgow January 13, 2019

Disillusioned and fed up with established politicians, voters from Ljubljana to Kyiv have welcomed the entry of comedians and satirists to the political sphere, with the popularity of such outside candidates often shooting ahead of better-known political figures. 

This has resulted in the appointment of former comedian Marjan Sarec as Slovenia’s new prime minister, spoof candidate “Beli” threatening to push Serbia’s Aleksandar Vucic to a second round in the 2017 presidential election, and, most recently, a strong showing in the polls for Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy ahead of the country’s March 31 presidential vote. 

Beli, as the young Serbian comedian Luka Maksimovic (aka Ljubisa Preletacevic) styled himself, was the first to burst onto the political scene when he decided to run in the April 2017 election that was widely expected to be a shoo-in for Serbia’s then Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic. 

The comedian started out as a spoof candidate, but such was the discontent among many Serbians about the options they faced in the presidential elections, with a fragmented opposition offering little competition to Vucic, he shot into second place behind the prime minister in some pre-election polls. As his appeal for support went viral, Beli managed to gather the 10,000 signatures needed to register as a presidential candidate in just 24 hours with no party infrastructure at all.

In an interview with bne IntelliNews ahead of the vote, Beli stayed in his comedy persona most of the time, adopting the tone of a stereotypical serious politician to parody Vucic and other Balkan politicians with his claims of friendship with US President Donald Trump and other world leaders, and talk of attracting foreign investment and being on good terms with Russia “like, symbolically”. 

Beli is alter ego of the student, satirist and comedian Luka Maksimovic, behind whom are writer Stevan Vlajic, actor Stefan Gajic and editor and cameraman Nebojsa Velickovic. He initially appeared during the local election campaign in April 2016 in the town of Mladenovac near Belgrade when he wore a white suit and rode a white horse in a parody of real politicians' attempts to impress voters. Surprisingly though, his civic group took one-fifth of the seats in the Mladenovac local assembly. “When we won this 20% at the local level, it was clear that we had potential and that we can do more,” Vlajic told bne IntelliNews in a 2017 interview.

In the event, Vucic won easily in the first round of the 2017 presidential election, and former ombudsman Sasa Jankovic pushed Beli into third place. But the furore surrounding the spoofer still rattled politicians and may have helped galvanise the divided opposition to work together at least to some extent, post election. However, with little prospect of dislodging Vucic in the ballot boxes the opposition, which accuse the now president of becoming increasingly authoritarian, have taken to the streets in a wave of mass protests this winter. 

(Left to right) Comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy is in second place in Ukraine’s presidential race. Marjan Sarec is Slovenia’s new prime minister. Spoof candidate “Beli” threatened Serbia’s Aleksandar Vucic in the last elections

An unlikely prime minister 

Beli may have underperformed in the polls when Serbians finally went to vote, but it was a different story for Marjan Sarec in the fellow former Yugoslavian republic of Slovenia. 

Another comedian and political satirist, Sarec’s famous stage persona was grumpy rural dweller Ivan Serpentinšek, but he also caricatured famous politicians — including former Slovenian prime minister Janes Jansa who he now faces as leader of the parliamentary opposition. 

Sarec gave up his comedy career when he was elected mayor of the small town of Kamnik since 2010. From this obscure political base, he ran for the presidency in 2017, only narrowly losing to incumbent Borut Pahor in the second round. While Sarec doesn’t appear to have a clear political plan, his popularity continued to grow, indicating that Slovenians are keen primarily to see a new face on their political scene.

With his ratings high, Sarec looked ahead to the June 2018 general election, forming his own political party the List of Marjan Sarec (LMS). Proving the presidential election wasn’t just a flash in the pan, LMS went on become the second-largest party in the fragmented new parliament after Jansa’s Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS). 

Under normal circumstances this would have seen Sarec either in opposition or playing second fiddle to Jansa within a coalition government. But Sarec benefited from the rift between Jansa on the one hand and the leaders of almost all the parties in the new parliament on the other. After Jansa, whose right wing politics and anti-immigration stance were anathema to many Slovenian politicians, failed repeatedly to form a government, Sarec managed to cobble together a five-party minority government with the informal backing of left wing Levica. 

Life imitates art in Ukraine

The latest comedian to enter the political arena in the post-communist space is Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who launched his campaign for the Ukrainian presidency on January 8. Zelenskiy plays the president in a spoof TV show and has been held up as embodying the protest vote in Ukraine’s presidential race, as well as being a candidate that breaks with the old guard that dominate politics. 

In December 2018 the polls put opposition leader, former prime minister and head of Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party Yulia Tymoshenko clearly ahead, with the support of 21.2% of those that intended to vote and a ten point lead over her nearest challenger, Zelenskiy (11.6%). President Petro Poroshenko was in third place with 11%. Earlier in December a poll by the International Republican Institute also put Tymoshenko in the lead with 17% of likely voters, followed by Poroshenko, Zelenskiy and two other candidates in a statistical tie for second place.

The most likely outcome at this stage seems to be a second-round runoff between Tymoshenko and Poroshenko, given the incumbent’s access to state resources and ample funds. However, Tim Ash, senior sovereign strategist at Blue Bay Asset Management, speculates that Tymoshenko could face Zelenskiy, former security council head Anatoliy Hrytsenko or possibly former health minister Yuri Boiko. 

“Of these she would likely beat all, except perhaps Zelenskiy. And I would guess Zelenskiy’s ultimate political backers, who also seem more closely aligned behind Tymoshenko, and against Poroshenko, will be asking whether their objectives are better served with a Tymoshenko or a Zelenskiy presidency. Zelensky might prove more malleable in their minds, hence they might still let him run, to defeat Poroshenko and Tymoshenko,” Ash wrote in a December 13 note

Zelenskiy’s bid is more serious than first appears as Ukraine’s richest and most powerful oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky who is a sworn enemy of Poroshenko backs him.

“Kolomoisky is the main opponent of Petro Poroshenko, and has been seeking revenge for the revenues his businesses have lost by supporting the main candidates for the presidency, namely Tymoshenko, and now Zelenskiy. The oligarch assumes that a good result for Zelenskiy in the presidential elections will help him to send a large group of deputies to parliament in the elections in October and expand his influence in the country,” East West Institute (OSW) said in a recent note.

Secondly Zelenskiy  will benefit with the wide spread disillusionment with the established political elite that have failed to deliver on any of the promises of the EuroMaidan uprising. One significant aspect of the polls in Ukraine is that they show all the candidates are unpopular and voters are generally unhappy — a factor seen in other cases where large numbers have backed an outside candidate. The IRI poll, for example, showed disappointment in the government and political leaders, with 71% of respondents saying they think Ukraine is going in the “wrong direction”.

Disillusioned electorates pick outsiders 

Ukraine has this in common with Serbia — where the fragmented opposition was seen as having no chance of taking on Vucic — and Slovenia, where Miro Cerar’s outgoing government failed dismally to capitalise on the solid economic performance during his four years in office. 

The new mayor of the Armenian capital Yerevan is yet another former comedian (as well as actor, screenwriter and producer) to take on an important political role, again in a country with a high level of unhappiness with the former regime. A civic activist during Serzh Sargsyan’s presidency, Hayk Marutyan aligned himself with protest leader turned prime minister Nikol Pashinian as Armenians took to the streets in their thousands in the Velvet Revolution of April and May 2018. 

Marutyan, already well known since his time as half of the comedy duo Hayko Mko in the 2000s, was elected to the mayor position with 80% of the vote in an election widely seen as a litmus test for the snap general election in December that saw Pashinian’s coalition win a similarly overwhelming landslide. 

Having a non establishment figure as Yerevan mayor is perhaps not surprising given that the Velvet Revolution saw civic activists and ordinary Armenians pit themselves against the Republican Party that had controlled Armenian politics for two decades (protest leader Pashinian himself is a former journalist), though in the run up to the vote Marutyan stressed his years of political activism. 

While voters in a number of post-Communist countries are disillusioned with their politicians and in particular the high levels of nepotism and corruption, this is by no means a phenomenon limited to the region. 

Other former comedians to achieve prominence include Guatemalan comedian Jimmy Morales who ran for the presidency under the slogan "neither corrupt, nor a thief” — and won — after the incumbent Otto Perez Molina was ousted in a corruption scandal. Icelandic comedian Jón Gnarr, whose manifesto famously included free towels at public swimming pools, secured the mayorship in Reykjavik. And in Italy, former blogger and comedian Beppe Grillo’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement became the largest party in the parliament after the 2018 general election.

A man without a plan 

The problem with many of the comedians who have entered politics recently is that while they appear to offer an alternative to the establishment they lack a solid political programme that can turn this appealing image into political substance and concrete action. 

Marutyan is something of an exception as he came up with a detailed manifesto ahead of the Yerevan municipal election. But analysts were disappointed with the start of Zelenskiy’s presidential campaign, an 83-second video in which he asked the public to submit their proposals for his election programme.

“We will write it with people throughout the country. Afterwards, we will find the path to solve all problems. And then we will implement them in life,” he said, asking the public to send him their five main problems that need solving.

Zenon Zawada of Concorde Capital pointed out cobbling together a popularist programme by polling the public is unlikely to allow him defeat the experienced and ruthless opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. 

“This video could be beginning of what we predicted as the “gradual waning” of Zelenskiy’s popularity. It’s apparent that Zelenskiy has no team of political advisers, at least not yet. Cobbling together random proposals with no consistent platform or strategy won’t get him elected. It seems as though he himself is treating this campaign as a publicity stunt more than anything else, considering he shot the video wearing an old t-shirt with an unshaven face,” Zawada wrote in early January. 

Speaking to bne IntelliNews in March 2017, Serbian presidential candidate Beli’s collaborator Vlajic acknowledged the lack of preparation for the youthful comedian to actually take over the presidency. “It would dishonest if we implied that Luka Maksimovic, as 26-year old student, would be able to bring some concrete benefits to this country, but he still has the capacity to delegate,” he said, adding however that, “even if we win, there will not be any problems since Ljubisa will definitely not bring anything bad to this country.”

Similar concerns have been raised about Sarec’s lack of political substance. 

Miran Videtic, director at VI-PU, a management consulting company based in Kamnik where Sarec was mayor, talked of the political newcomer’s “dangerously unserious” approach in an interview with bne IntelliNews in September. “[Sarec] didn’t have a manifesto … His election campaign indicated that his answer to any question on how he would resolve something was always ‘by working on it’. He didn’t have a programme and still doesn’t have one. That concerns many Slovenians and negatively affects his support,” said Videtic. 

Sarec’s cabinet includes two former prime ministers, Cerar and Alenka Bratusek and numerous other experienced politicians. But the benefits of their experience is likely outweighed by the large number of disparate voices coming from within the cabinet. The government’s fragility was highlighted in November when Sarec ordered development minister and member of Bratusek’s eponymous party Marko Bandelli to resign after the minister threatened to use his clout to influence the local elections in the town of Komen. Bratusek criticised Sarec for failing to discuss the issue with her, saying: "If these are the communication channels that the coalition will be using, our time here will be preciously short.”

Slovenians remain keen on political outsiders, with independent candidates winning the largest share of the mayoral posts in the local elections in November, but Sarec’s performance in office and ability to hold together his hodgepodge coalition will be an important test. A talent for satire may burnish a candidate’s anti-establishment allure pre-election, but once in office an entirely different set of qualities are required.