By Gamini Weerakoon
Comedian Volodymyr Zelensky’s resounding victory in the Ukranian presidential election — polling 73 percent of the vote — against former president oligarch Petro Poroshenko, known as the ‘Chocolate King’ of Ukraine, has not had the expected impact in geopolitics, caused surprise or even amusement.
This giant-killing performance of the 41-year-old comedian has not made much of an impact even in the international media, and Zelensky, it appears, has been imperceptibly moved out to their archives by the media.
Ukraine is a frontline state of Western nations on the borders of Russia. There is an ongoing undeclared war between Russia and Ukraine. Russia is being accused of ‘annexing Crimea’ by Ukraine and Western powers. But the powers involved, or even the international media, do not seem to be much concerned how this neophyte politician and comedian will face up to the challenges now confronting Ukraine.
What’s unusual about Zelensky is that he is the first professional comedian to be elected president. Comedians attract public interest as much or even more than politicians. Comedians are those that make people laugh and politicians are those who make people angry and inadvertently make people laugh at them. So why is Zelensky, who possesses both these attributes, not making the headlines?
The cynical view that most politicians of today are comedians — better comedians than professional comedians — cannot be dismissed lightly in view of some of the daily performances of incumbent presidents.
Take the performances of the president of the ‘Greatest country on earth’ — the incomparable Donald Trump. His rambunctious daily performances on TV qualify him to be in the front rank of comedians of the day. Even in faraway Sri Lanka, those who resent his policies and mannerisms enjoy the absurdities and contradictions of his arguments, the firm conviction with which he says that he is right and is the greatest.
In recent weeks Trump’s dire veiled threats to Iran that he ‘does not want war with Iran’ and ‘If Iran wants to fight it will be the end of Iran’, and ‘Never threaten the United States again’, sound comical when Iranian leaders quite placidly declare that they ‘Do not want a war with the United States’. All this fire and fury fizzles out because Trump does not even specify the so-called threats made by Iran against his country.
A listener to this Trump tirade over CNN says that these threats remind him of his class bully in saying ‘I am not going to thrash you; but I like your crayons’.
A president cruder, ruder and more vulgar than Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte would be hard to find but still he does sound comic with some of his absurdities. Two weeks ago, Duterte threatened to declare a garbage war against Canada and said he would pilot a shipment of garbage in containers back to Canada. Let them eat it if they can, he was quoted as saying.
A Philippine company had been importing garbage from Canada on a commercial deal for over six years and recently it had been found that there had been household garbage instead of recyclable plastic as stated on the containers. The Canadian government of young President Justin Trudeau with deft diplomacy said they would settle the dispute diplomatically avoiding the muckraking that Duterte seems to relish.
Duterte’s misogynist ranting in this era of emerging gender equality has made him the bête noir of feminists and liberals.
Recently, addressing a largely feminine audience comprising Philippine service officers, he called women ‘bitches’ and ‘crazy women’ because he was enraged at Philippine women criticising him. It was an infringement of his right of free expression, he declared. Duterte had opined that women should ‘stay away from Catholic priests, who, he said, could ‘corner’ women, if they got too close to the priests.
His comment to a journalist: ‘Just because you are a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination, if you are a son of a bitch’.
When, he was Mayor of the Philippine town of Davo, speaking on the rape of an Australian nun he had said: I was angry, because she was raped, that’s one thing. But she was so beautiful; the Mayor should have been the first.
His boast to show off that he could be 50 times more brutal than Muslim militants: Give me salt and vinegar and I will eat his liver.
Duterte continues to rant against the Christian God, Bible and the Catholic clergy, women, journalists and most of those who are not in agreement with him.
‘The bishops are… most of them are gay, they should come out to the open. Cancel celibacy and allow them to have boyfriends….
After the Pope’s visit to the Philippines, he called the Pope names and added: Go home. Do not visit us again. The cause of his ire was the traffic jams caused by the tremendous crowds that flocked to Manila!
Some observers would see something comical and eccentric in these sayings, while orthodox observers will see it as being absolutely vulgar, dangerous and sacrilegious.
The most chilling and blood curdling statements are those of his policies on eradication of narcotics such as: There are three million drug addicts in the Philippines. I will be happy to slaughter them all.
However, there are admirers as well. He is the elected president with a population of 108 million.
Among Duterte’s many such admirers is our President Maithripala Sirisena. He is fully supportive of Duterte’s crackdown on drug addicts and wants to enforce harsh punishment by bringing in the death penalty for some drug dealers. But he does not evince Duterte’s other inclinations mentioned above.
Like Zelensky, Sirisena, too, is a giant killer, having thrown out a president who held power for a near decade and was threatening to make himself a president for life. But president Sirisena’s record seems to indicate that he has the capacity to do exactly the reverse of what he sought in his mandate. Therein lies the comic element as well as the tragic. He wanted to do away with executive presidential power but has continued to retain such powers. One of his chief declarations in his election mandate was that he would seek only a single term as president and reduce his term of office to five years on assuming office, which he did, but now he seeks to extend it to its limits.
However, the grand comedy was enacted in October last year, when he sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointed his former boss Mahinda Rajapaksa as PM, although it was Wickremesinghe who helped Sirisena to defeat Rajapaksa.
The grand tragi-comedy continues. Sirisena continues to play ball with those who he said would have had him six feet underground, had they not been defeated. Defeated by whom? Not Sirisena but Wickremesinghe and company.
Presidential comedians are many and even genuine professional comedians like Zelensky will find the stage over crowded.