A television comedian with no political experience earned a sizable lead in Ukraine’s Sunday election, over 38 rival candidates. Without a clear first-round victory, Volodymyr Zelenskiy will advance to a runoff vote on April 21 with Petro Poroshenko, the incumbent President.
Mr. Zelenskiy garnered 30 percent of the vote, while incumbent President Poroshenko was a distant second with about 17 percent, and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko with 13 percent to round out the top three. The results closely aligned with a major exit poll.
The country of 44 million people has a struggling economy and the conflict with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine has killed 13,000 people since 2014. Ukraine suffers from endless endemic corruption, and the strong showing for Mr. Zelenskiy appeared to reflect Ukrainians’ desire for new blood in their political system and a new approach to trying to end the war with Russia-backed separatists in the country’s east that has wracked the country for nearly five years.
Mr. Zelenskiy stars in a TV sitcom about a teacher who becomes president after a video of him denouncing corruption goes viral and his supporters hold out hope that he can fight corruption in real life. As one voter said, “Zelenskiy has shown us on the screen what a real president should be like. He showed what the state leader should aspire for — fight corruption by deeds, not words, help the poor, control the oligarchs.”
There were many allegations of widespread vote buying and police said they had received more than 2,100 complaints of violations on voting day alone, in addition to hundreds of earlier voting fraud claims, including bribery attempts and removing ballots from polling places. Concern about the election’s legitimacy were brought forward by Ukraine’s Interior Minister, who said his department was “showered” with hundreds of claims that supporters of Mr. Poroshenko and Ms. Tymoshenko had offered money in exchange for votes.
Like the popular character he plays, the 41-year-old Mr. Zelenskiy made corruption a central tenant of his candidacy. His lack of political experience helped his popularity with voters amid broad disillusionment with the country’s political elite. During his campaign, Mr. Zelenskiy held no rallies and gave few interviews to the mainstream news media, but his extensive use of social media appealed to younger voters. He proposed a lifetime ban on holding public office for anyone convicted of graft.
Mr. Zelenskiy called for direct negotiations with Russia on ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Mr. Zelensky's readiness to speak both Russian and Ukrainian was an asset at a time when language rights are a sensitive topic, lending him support in Ukraine's largely Russian-speaking east.
His potential weakness lies in his relationship with Ukraine's most controversial oligarch, Igor Kolomoisky, who owns the TV channel 1+1 and gave extensive support to Mr. Zelensky. Mr. Kolomoisky lives in self-imposed exile and faces numerous investigations in Ukraine into his business dealings.
53-year-old President Poroshenko is a chocolate tycoon and one of Ukraine’s wealthiest people who was elected five years ago in a snap vote after former pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was toppled in the February 2014 Maidan Revolution following Russia's annexation of Crimea and a Russian-backed insurgency in the east. He pushed successfully for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to be recognized as self-standing rather than a branch of the Russian church. However, he saw approval of his governing sink amid Ukraine’s economic woes and a sharp plunge in living standards and his campaign has been dogged by corruption allegations, including a scandal over defence procurement, which erupted last month.