Comedian On Track For Big First-Round Win Of Ukrainian Elections

KIEV, Ukraine -- Volodymyr Zelensky, a television comedian with no political experience, is on track to win the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election on Sunday, according to a preliminary tally of voting, and looks likely to face a run-off against incumbent Petro Poroshenko.

TV star poised to face incumbent Poroshenko in run-off.

With nearly 55 per cent of votes counted by-election officials, he secured just over 30 per cent of the vote, holding a significant lead over Mr Poroshenko’s nearly 17 per cent result.

The early results from the vote which had a nearly 64 per cent turnout was consistent with exit poll projections results released Sunday evening, and suggest that populist former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko received some 13 per cent voter support, not enough to leap into the second round run-off.

If confirmed by-election officials after a final count in coming days, Mr Zelensky will fight Mr Poroshenko in a second round on April 21.

The results indicated that Mr Zelensky, who has surfed a wave of public disenchantment with the political elite and anger over corruption and low living standards, won the first round by a convincing margin.

“Thank you very much . . . everything is super,” Mr Zelensky said in an address after the exit poll results were announced at his campaign headquarters, an upscale Kiev club equipped with fuzzball and bean bags.

Earlier he had played table tennis surrounded by journalists.

With many Ukrainians yearning for new political faces, Mr Zelensky has honed his appeal through popular comedy shows in which he mocks the political establishment.

He became famous playing an honest school teacher who is unexpectedly elected president in the TV series Servant of the People.

“I heard you and ask that you listen to me,” Mr Poroshenko said in a post vote speech in which he addressed the comedian’s “under 30 years of age” core base of support”.

“I completely share your desire” for faster reforms, Mr Poroshenko said adding: “everything that was done during the past five years . . . has been for the youth, for the future of Ukraine”.

Warning that “a mistake” in the run-off risked reversal of achievements, he warned: “April 1 comes within three hours. Let’s laugh, but then be done with it. Friends, this is not a joke, we won’t be laughing later.” 

The exit polls suggest Mr Poroshenko has a clear lead over Ms Tymoshenko, a two-time prime minister who fought a populist campaign.

However, many analysts expected Ms Tymoshenko to take legal action to challenge the result. 

Uncertainty over the election has unnerved Ukraine’s western backers and foreign investors.

The country faces a peak in foreign debt payments and is locked in a smouldering war with Russia-backed separatists and Russian forces in far-eastern regions.

Ukraine’s economy has returned to growth, after a decline in 2014-15, thanks to foreign support, including multibillion-dollar loans provided by the IMF as part of a reform programme.

Mr Zelensky, who avoided in-depth interviews and debates with his opponents, has run an unorthodox campaign based on social media and comedy performances.

He has joined other top candidates in urging the west to step up diplomatic efforts to end the conflict with Russia and has vowed to usher in a new generation of political leaders, while keeping Ukraine on a path for continued western integration.

He has denied claims he is a puppet of oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, whose television channel has provided Mr Zelensky with extensive coverage, including repeated airing of the Servant of the People series.

Mr Poroshenko, an oligarch who was elected president in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea and fomented war in the Donbass, was widely written off last year but has made a remarkable comeback with a campaign based on patriotism and defiance of Russian aggression.

Casting his ballot, Mr Poroshenko pledged that the election “will be very democratic”, and was confident of his own “victory.”

“We will do all possible to make Ukraine a great country, free and independent,” he said.

Ahead of Sunday’s vote, Mr Poroshenko ran campaign advertising that urged voters to “think” carefully and reject “cynical jokes” and populist promises.

He claimed Mr Kolomoisky was backing the candidacies of his two rivals, seeking “revenge” for the 2016 nationalisation of his bank as part of a $5.5bn bailout.

Mr Kolomoisky has denied claims he is financing the campaigns of Mr Zelensky and Ms Tymoshenko but has made clear he wants Mr Poroshenko to lose. 

Ms Tymoshenko, who led polls last year promising to reverse unpopular IMF-backed reforms, including sharp gas price increases, lost momentum as Mr Zelensky surged ahead. 

Source: ft