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article imageNo joke: comedian Zelensky sets course for Ukraine presidency

By Theo MERZ and Olga SHYLENKO (AFP)     Apr 1, 2019 in Politics

Comedian Volodymyr Zelensky is favourite to become Ukraine's president after results Monday showed him dominating a first-round vote despite many initially dismissing his candidacy as a joke.

The 41-year-old's political experience has been limited to playing the president in a TV show but he leapfrogged establishment candidates amid public frustration over corruption and a stalling economy.

Results published on April Fools' Day -- an irony not lost on Ukrainian social media -- showed Zelensky taking 30 percent in Sunday's first round, almost double the 16-percent vote share of incumbent Petro Poroshenko.

The two will meet in a run-off vote on April 21 after almost 93 percent of counted ballots showed ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko and dozens of other candidates falling out of the race.

If Zelensky wins then, as polls and analysts suggest, he will take the reins of one of the poorest countries in Europe -- a nation of 45 million people fighting Russian-backed separatists in its industrial east.

"I want to thank all the Ukrainians who came out and voted in seriousness," the high-spirited actor told supporters after exit polls showed a better-than-expected result late Sunday.

- 'Harsh lesson' for Poroshenko -

Zelensky had topped opinion polls for weeks and the main question going into the weekend vote was who between Tymoshenko and Poroshenko would meet him in the second round.

Ukraine presidential vote
Ukraine presidential vote
Vincent LEFAI, AFP

But the size of his lead came as a surprise.

Poroshenko called the result a "harsh lesson" for him personally and for the authorities as a whole.

Tymoshenko, who came to international prominence as a face of the 2004 Orange Revolution and was taking her third tilt at the presidency, had denounced exit polls as "dishonest".

Incumbent Poroshenko  (L) will face actor and comedian Zelensky in a runoff presidential election
Incumbent Poroshenko, (L) will face actor and comedian Zelensky in a runoff presidential election
Kayhan OZER, Sergei SUPINSKY, AFP

But a monitoring mission by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe said Monday that the vote had been in general "well-organized, smooth, transparent and efficient".

"Observers noted a few procedural errors and very few serious violations during the vote count," it said in a statement.

The European Union anticipated "a free, fair and transparent second round of the elections."

"It is important that all parties adhere to democratic principles, respecting the will of Ukrainian people and avoid provoking unnecessary tensions," an EU statement added.

- 'Call for new faces' -

Political analyst Anatoliy Oktysyuk of Kiev's Democracy House think tank said it would be "difficult" for Poroshenko to knock the comic off course in the head-to-head round.

"He (Poroshenko) has no room for growth. He has played all his cards," Oktysyuk told AFP.

"This is a protest against the old elites and a call for new faces."

Oktysyuk expects Poroshenko to frame the contest as part of a wider confrontation between Moscow and the West -- with himself the only one who could stand up to Russia's Vladimir Putin.

The election commission website said comedian Zelensky had 30.2 percent of the vote and President Po...
The election commission website said comedian Zelensky had 30.2 percent of the vote and President Poroshenko 16.7, with just over half of all votes counted
Vasily MAXIMOV, AFP

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the first-round result but said Moscow hoped Ukrainians would not vote for a "party of war" -- a thinly-veiled reference to Poroshenko.

Poroshenko came to power in 2014 after a revolution forced his Kremlin-backed predecessor Viktor Yanukovych out of office.

The uprising was followed by Russia's annexation of Crimea and the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.

The 53-year-old leader -- a chocolate magnate who was one of the country's richest men when he took office -- said he would end the fighting, tackle graft and align the country with the West.

But five years on, the ongoing conflict has claimed 13,000 lives and many feel Poroshenko has failed to live up to the promise of the revolution.

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko fell out of the presidential race in the first roun...
Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko fell out of the presidential race in the first round
Sergei GAPON, AFP

Despite concerns about Zelensky's vague platform, supporters insist only a total outsider can clean up Ukraine's murky politics.

"A real democracy is when the result of the vote is a surprise. Congratulations -- Ukraine is not Russia, Ukraine is Europe," Kiev businessman and lecturer Valery Pekar wrote on Facebook.

Some accuse Zelensky of acting as a front for the interests of oligarch Igor Kolomoysky, who owns the channel that broadcasts the entertainer's shows, but the actor denies any political links.

He eschewed traditional rallies and interviews in favour of playing gigs with his comedy troupe up to the final days of campaigning.

The political comedy "Servant of the People" he stars in returned for its third season last week.

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