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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 April 2019

Polls open in Ukraine's presidential election with comedian leading the field

Volodymyr Zelensky, who plays a fictional fish out of water president in a sitcom, is leading the polls

Ukrainian comic actor and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy casts his ballot at a polling station during a presidential election in Kiev. Reuters
Ukrainian comic actor and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy casts his ballot at a polling station during a presidential election in Kiev. Reuters

Polls have opened in Ukraine's presidential election where a comedian with no political experience is expected to beat two political heavyweights in the first round.

Volodymyr Zelensky, 41, who is appealing to voters fed up with entrenched corruption, has consistently led opinion polls in a three-horse race against incumbent Petro Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Since protests in 2014 leading to the ousting of a pro-Russian president, Ukraine has been in turmoil, with conflict and economic instability haunting the country.

No candidate is expected to receive more than 50 per cent of the vote in Sunday's election, meaning a second round will be held on April 21.

Ukraine – formerly a Soviet country – is caught between the orbits of the liberal democratic values of the EU and that of Russia.

None of the leading candidates in the fray want to take Ukraine back to Russia.

In Sunday's poll, fiction risks turning to reality as Mr Zelensky, who plays the role of a scrupulously honest history teacher-turned Ukrainian president in Servant of The People, seeks election.

"[Mr] Zelensky has shown us on the screen what a real president should be like," voter Tatiana Zinchenko, 30, who cast her ballot for the comedian, told the Associated Press. "He showed what the state leader should aspire for — fight corruption by deeds, not words, help the poor, control the oligarchs."

Just like his fictional character in the sitcom, Mr Zelensky, 41, wants to tap into an anti-establishment mood in the country, criticising the influence of oligarchs and big businesses.

"A new life, a normal life is starting," Mr Zelensky said after casting his ballot in Kiev. "A life without corruption, without bribes."

His campaign has taken on the feel of a reality TV programme and used social media extensively to reach young people.

He has criticised establishment candidates including Mr Poroshenko, who appeals to conservative Ukrainians through the slogan "Army, Language, Faith."

Mr Poroshenko, 53, was a confectionary tycoon when he was elected five years ago in the wake of protests. He has fought to regain control of Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014 and campaigned for Ukraine to join Nato and the EU.

But under his government living standards in Ukraine have plummeted and last month he became embroiled in a corruption scandal over defence procurement.

It is a message Ms Tymshenko, the former prime minister, has shaped her campaign around.

"Ukraine has sunk into poverty and corruption during the last five years, but every Ukrainian can put an end to it now," she said after voting. She described price hikes introduced by Mr Poroshenko as "economic genocide" and promised to reduce prices for household gas by 50 percent within a month of taking office.

Concerns over the legitimacy of the election emerged after the interior ministry said they had received hundreds of reports that supporters of Mr Poroshenko and Mr Tymoshenko offered money in exchange for votes.

In Season 3, of Mr Zelensky's show, which began airing in March, his character is flung into prison and the country falls under the control of oligarchs, populists and ultranationalists, and gets broken up into 28 states. Thinly disguised characters resembling Mr Poroshenko and Mr Tymoshenko come to power.

But some say Mr Zelensky is under the influence of Ihor Kolomoysky, the owner of the 1+1 TV channel on which he performs, and who is in exile facing accusations of bank fraud.

Whoever wins the ballot will have serious challenges to face. The next president will have to push reforms required to keep the country in an IMF bailout programme that has supported Ukraine through war, recession and currency turbulence.

Updated: March 31, 2019 05:54 PM

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