Mikheil Saakashvili: Ukraine's presidential election should send a clear message to every politician

From Brexit to Trump’s victory to Bolsonaro’s win in Brazil, the past few years have seen voters across the globe upending the establishment. Nevertheless, as U.S. presidential contenders throw their hats in the ring for 2020, polling shows that Democrats favor nominating an “experienced political insider.”

But those who anticipate a return to “politics as usual” are making a big mistake: The revolt against the status quo shows no sign of stopping. If Ukraine’s presidential election on Sunday is any indicator, it’s only intensifying.


Volodymyr Zelensky, whose political experience consists of playing a fictional president on TV, beat incumbent president Petro Poroshenko by a record-high margin of nearly 50 points. In other words, Ukrainians just delivered the most dramatic rejection of the political class in recent memory.

This landslide has triggered a predictable backlash from the establishment. Mainstream media is speculating on the supposed risks of electing a “comedian” to the highest office in the land.

Some foreign policy analysts have derisively compared Zelensky to Trump; liberal pundit Andrea Chalupa recently warned Ukrainians about “what a politically untested TV star can do to a country.” And Zelensky’s win sent shock waves through Washington think tank circles, where some claim that his inexperience means his presidency will be a “disaster.”

Sound familiar?

What these experts fail to understand is that Zelensky won not in spite of his outsider status but because of it.

Ukraine’s political establishment has promised voters the world for nearly three decades -- and then failed to deliver. Though Western partners have praised Poroshenko for making “progress on reform,” such “progress” is meaningless if it fails to improve people’s lives.

Ukraine has become the poorest country in Europe, while Poroshenko’s personal income increased nearly a hundredfold last year. It should come as no surprise that voters are hungry for something new.

Establishment criticism of political outsiders often backfires because it reinforces what voters already know: Many of those considered “experts” are remarkably out-of-touch with ordinary people.

Take Chalupa’s comment about Trump. The average Ukrainian, barely surviving on less than $300 a month, wants nothing more than the opportunity and prosperity America has experienced in the Trump era.

The disconnect between expert opinions and ordinary people’s reality was clear by 2016 when I resigned as governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region to become one of Poroshenko’s most vocal opponents.

With this election, the poverty, corruption, and abuses of power I witnessed have finally culminated in Ukrainians’ rejection of the status quo.

Like Trump and other unconventional leaders, Zelensky succeeded in channeling popular discontent because he understands the power of social media to speak directly to the people.

Throughout his campaign, he addressed supporters in impromptu Facebook and Instagram videos instead of scripted ads and stump speeches. It wasn’t easy -- fake news is an epidemic in Ukraine, and brutal smear attempts marred the election. But by using his online platform to connect with voters authentically, without the pretenses of traditional campaigning, Zelensky fought back and won.

And now the real battle begins. Voters have given Zelensky a mandate to upend the system, and it won’t be easy. Even so, I’m more optimistic than ever about Ukraine’s future.

Why? Because Zelensky’s core promise -- to destroy the failed system and rebuild it from the ground up -- can only be realized by an outsider.

As president of Georgia, I learned progress in post-Communist countries must be radical to succeed. A government predicated on graft, nepotism, and bribery cannot be reformed in the traditional sense. It must be overhauled. This uncompromising ethos drove me and my team to turn Georgia from a failed state into the world’s top reformer.


And unlike Poroshenko, whose kleptocracy pushed away many advisors (including me), Zelensky is inclined toward creative destruction. His program details concrete plans to jump-start judicial reforms, curb the administrative state, and streamline anti-corruption infrastructure. To do this, he is building a team of Western-oriented professionals -- and has suggested he would welcome my perspective too.

Zelensky’s victory sends a clear message to all politicians, in Ukraine and beyond: The global anti-establishment trend isn’t reversing anytime soon. And that’s probably for the best.