Jewish Comedian Is Front Runner of Ukraine's Presidential Election

Volodymyr Zelensky, who is being called the 'Ukrainian Donald Trump,' is projected to get a quarter of the vote

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Jewish Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelensky
Jewish Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelensky Credit: Gabe Friedman /JTA

Ukraine’s presidential election is shaping up to be a case of life imitating art.

This is because the leading candidate in the March 31 vote is Volodymyr Zelensky — a Ukrainian-Jewish comedian who portrays a history teacher turned president in his hit television show, “Servant of the People.”

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Polls conducted throughout February give 41-year-old Zelensky 25 percent of the vote — a 10-point lead over incumbent Petro Poroshenko and political veteran Yulia Timoshenko who are running for office in the national election.

On television, Zelensky’s unlikely presidential candidacy carries him into office thanks to popular resentment to corruption and ineptitude of the government and political establishment.

Zelensky, whom local media has already dubbed “the Ukrainian Donald Trump,” is not president yet. But the resentment addressed in his show is not fictional.

In a poll of 40,000 Ukrainian respondents last year, bribery and corruption ranked as the second-most pressing problem in Ukraine, being named as such by 41 percent of poll participants. The most troubling issue plaguing Ukraine is the territorial conflict with Russia, according to that poll.

Born in Kryvyi Rih near Dnipro to a Jewish family of scientists, Zelensky has not mentioned his Jewish identity in interviews before or during the campaign, which critics say is purposefully vague.

When a reporter asked him how he would deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Zelensky reverted to his comic roots, replying: “I would speak to him at eye level.” It was a reference to his and Putin’s being at least three inches shorter than Poroshenko’s six feet.