Ukraine’s leader will face a runoff next month against comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy to hold on to the presidency, according to an exit poll following the first round of elections on Sunday.
Zelenskiy, a 41-year-old TV comic with no political experience, was backed by 30.6 per cent of voters compared with 17.8 per cent for incumbent Petro Poroshenko, an initial survey by three pollsters showed. That would mean ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is eliminated, along with the other 36 candidates vying for the former Soviet republic’s top office.
Tymoshenko, attempting to win the presidency for the third time, said official results — most of which are due Monday — will show she came second.
Who leads Ukraine is of global significance since the country of 42 million people, locked between Russia and the European Union, became a geopolitical battleground. The West has pumped in billions of dollars in aid since protesters ousted Kremlin-backed Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. Russia continues to meddle as it bids to eventually win back influence.
“This is just the first step toward a big victory,” Zelenskiy said at his campaign headquarters as supporters drank champagne. “We don’t want this past in our future, in the future of our country.”
Poroshenko, a 53-year-old tycoon, now has three weeks to close the gap on his rival and on Sunday signaled how he plans to do so. He reiterated pledges to lead Ukraine into the EU and NATO, while accusing Zelenskiy of ties to the Kremlin and being an oligarch’s “puppet.”
Looking to co-opt his Zelenskiy’s core backers, he said he understands that young people want to see Ukraine improve more rapidly. “You want changes to be deeper and faster,” Poroshenko said. “I share this. I heard you.”
Five years after Ukrainians demonstrated for political re-alignment with Europe and an end to post-communist corruption, many aren’t satisfied. Anti-establishment fervor of the kind that’s spread across the continent has driven Zelenskiy’s rise. He’s favorite to win the April 21 head-to-head contest with Poroshenko.
On top of graft, voters are fed up with the persistent military conflict that Russia fomented in eastern Ukraine after President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea. They’re also tired of economic pain. The rebound from a deep recession is lackluster, kept afloat by loans from the International Monetary Fund. People are worse off after a currency devaluation and hikes to utility tariffs. Many have left to work abroad.
Zelenskiy, who plays a fictional president on television, has found success by attacking his rivals over the nation’s endemic corruption. He joins other successful comics-turned-politicians including Italy’s Beppe Grillo and Slovenia’s Marjan Sarec.
But Zelenskiy’s been vague on actual policies and isn’t immune to murky accusations himself: he’s repeatedly denied political links to the billionaire whose TV channel airs his shows.
Despite the negativity around his candidacy, Poroshenko has trumpeted achievements that include securing visa-free travel to the EU for Ukrainians and helping create an Orthodox church independent of Russia. There have been some reform successes too, namely strengthening the armed forces, cleaning up the banking industry and overhauling public procurement.
“Ukrainian voters couldn’t have issued a stronger verdict of their distrust in the political establishment,” Joerg Forbrig, a Berlin-based senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, said by email. “The run-off will now be a referendum on that political leadership and the course it’s steered since the revolution.”
With assistance from Volodymyr Verbyany and Yulia Surkova