Macron and Bolsonaro Inspire Ukraine's Surprise Election Leader

(Bloomberg) -- French President Emmanuel Macron and Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro are role models for the unexpected frontrunner in the race for Ukraine’s presidency, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who sees a kinship with them as bold newcomers to politics.

Zelenskiy, a comedian-turned-producer, doubled his support in opinion polls since announcing his bid on December 31. With his lead holding up ahead of incumbent Petro Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, he says Bolsonaro has been an inspiration as he rushes to build out a team that may be in charge of running the country of 42 million people. The election is on March 31 and the top two vote-getters will advance to a runoff if no candidate surpasses 50 percent.

"I don’t know to what extent it’s possible to do it in Ukraine, but I think it’s a grand idea," Zelenskiy, speaking at a briefing in Kiev, said of the Brazilian president’s stated policy of hiring experts to his government. "It’s the right move to bring all kinds of professional managers, including from the U.S., to power. It gives people hope. For me, this is a very vivid illustration."

Zelenskiy is targeting the anti-establishment vote in the mold of populists who’ve popped up elsewhere in Europe and beyond. He is looking to appeal to Ukrainians disillusioned five years after the country’s second pro-European revolution in a decade, which failed to stamp out rampant corruption. "I am playing the five-year game, don’t want the second term."

Old Reformers

The government has dragged its feet on overhauling the economy, hurting a growth trajectory already dragged down by a simmering war with Kremlin-backed fighters in the country’s eastern regions. Zelenskiy signaled his approach by hiring as advisers reform-minded former ministers who left the cabinet in frustration over the lack of progress: ex-Finance Minister Oleksandr Danylyuk and Aivaras Abromavicius, who used to run the economy and trade department.

Like Macron, Zelenskiy is looking to convert his quick popularity to build a wider political base, planning to create his own party before parliamentary elections later this year. Beyond the electoral tactics, he said the youngest ever French president is someone with whom he shares a “common mindset.”

A question Zelenskiy faces at almost every interview is whether he’s backed by Ukrainian billionaire Igor Kolomoisky, an owner of the TV channel where the comedian’s popular Kvartal 95 show runs. Kolomoisky has fallen out with the government and remains locked in a dispute over the nationalization of Privatbank, in which he was a major shareholder.

‘Enough Money’

Both men have repeatedly denied working together on Zelenskiy’s bid for the presidency.

“Do you think I’d be doing all this because some oligarch wants me to?” Zelenskiy said Monday. “I have enough money and I have the people’s trust.”

Zelenskiy says Ukrainian oligarchs need to play by the rules and should be banned from influencing the media, though must get fair treatment in independent courts. Judicial reform, a functional anti-corruption court and independent anti-graft institutions will improve Ukraine’s investment climate, he said.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.