KIEV — The lines between reality TV and politics get blurrier all the time around the world. In Ukraine, they are now effectively erased.
Think of it as the political edition of “The Bachelor.” An ultra-long-shot candidate in Sunday’s presidential race, Ihor Shevchenko, has literally turned his campaign into a dating show.
The name of the webcast production is straightforward, if also wildly hopeful: “Do You Want to Become the Wife of a President?”
It means what it says.
Shevchenko — a boyish-looking 48-year-old who has a law degree from the University of Minnesota — plans to choose a spouse from among about 300 women who submitted applications online.
The entire process is being filmed and edited into 12-minute segments. A trailer has been posted by the candidate on Facebook and YouTube. Shevchenko’s political team plans to post the first full episodes this weekend and continue past Sunday’s election.
Ukrainian presidential candidate Ihor Shevchenko is looking for a spot in the history books - and for a first lady. Here is the trailer for his webcast. (Ihor Shevchenko)
The group will be whittled down to 10 to 15 finalists during segments that will include “debates” among the participants. The last competitors will vie for Shevchenko’s affections in individual dates.
Remarkably, Shevchenko may not be the most audacious act in the race to topple incumbent Petro Poroshenko.
A front-runner, Volodymyr Zelensky , is a comedian whose only claim to political experience is that he plays Ukraine’s president in a popular television series.
Another candidate registered under the name Yury V. Tymoshenko — an apparent attempt to siphon votes from Yulia V. Tymoshenko, a former prime minister who led the pro-democracy Orange Revolution that began in late 2004. She is seeking to make a comeback after being released from prison in 2014. Her conviction in 2011 for embezzlement and abuse of power was described as “unlawful and unjustified” by the European Court of Human Rights.
There has been no significant public backlash from women’s groups or others regarding the reality show stunt by Shevchenko, whose campaign poster shows him in a tuxedo and holding a single red rose.
Orysia Lutsevych, head of the Ukraine Forum at the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs, said she at first did not believe the reports about Shevchenko’s reality show.
“Then I thought it to be diminishing to women,” she added. “But then I thought that in Ukraine, where there is less sensitivity to these issues, it’s genius.”
“I think that it plays on the proximity to the voter — no barrier between politics and private life. In Ukraine, the political elite is somewhere up high on the mountain,” she said. “His is an attempt to bridge this divide.”
The chances of a Shevchenko victory appear remote at best. His polling numbers remain at less than 1 percent among a field of 39 candidates, the biggest number of presidential contenders in Ukraine’s history.
But if brand building was his goal, he has made some strides.
He was relatively unknown politically, previously serving as the country’s environmental minister and building a successful law firm. Now talk shows have now begun to invite him.
“I wasn’t a household name, so I needed to raise my political ID,” he said.
Moreover, Shevchenko claims that this is not just an election gimmick. He swears — in his best reality show sincerity — that he does want to find his true love.
“You know, you never know where you will meet this lady,” he said. “This is a way of meeting people in our age of electronic media.”
Still, the election carries important stakes. Ukrainian forces continue to clash with Kremlin-backed insurgents in the country’s east. Meanwhile, many Ukrainians are grumbling over what they see as a slow pace for economic growth and political reforms five years after ousting Moscow-backed leadership.
And Shevchenko’s lighthearted approach masks a more cynical political agenda. If possible, he would like to introduce an authoritarian rule along the lines of Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore to address Ukraine’s rampant corruption and political deadlock.
“We don’t have real democracy in Ukraine. It’s only on paper,” he said. “It’s oligarchy, corrupt oligarchy. They buy everything — voters, politicians.
“If they call this democracy. We should change it,” he added. “In Singapore, they have a lot more democracy than we have in Ukraine.”
On the Saturday after International Women’s Day on March 8, Shevchenko arrived at a casting call of around 20 applicants for his reality show, a pile of long-stemmed red roses clutched in his arms. He gave each of the women a flower and chatted with them about what he was hoping for in a spouse.
“I’m looking for someone who is attractive, intelligent and with whom I can discuss important matters and who can give me advice,” he said.
The whole thing was, of course, filmed.
Among the contestants was Inna Marchyshyn, a 27-year-old sales manager. She said her lack of success so far in “arranging her personal life” had inspired her to take part in this competition.
“Before now, what I was doing wasn’t working, so I decided to try something else. He seems to be a worthy candidate — both in the election and in love,” she said with laugh.
Although Shevchenko has created this reality show format, he insists he’s actually against it.
“I personally don’t like this. But if you’re just going to say serious words, it’s not going to work,” he said. “It’s unfortunate.”
“If you want to win, you should play by the rules that are in place,” he said. “Politics is a show right now.”
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