Comedian Zelenskiy defeats Poroshenko to claim Ukrainian presidency

Colourful and bruising election campaign ends in overwhelming victory for newcomer

Some 73 per cent of voters supported presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskyi. Photograph: Tatyana Zenkovich/ EPA

Some 73 per cent of voters supported presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskyi. Photograph: Tatyana Zenkovich/ EPA

 

Comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy has promised not to let Ukrainians down and held up his country as a democratic example to all post-Soviet states, after claiming a crushing presidential election victory over incumbent Petro Poroshenko.

Mr Poroshenko admitted defeat and congratulated Mr Zelenskiy, who with 94 percent of ballots counted had taken 73.2 per cent of votes, against 24.5 per cent for a tycoon who has led Ukraine for five turbulent years.

Mr Zelenskiy gained fame with a comedy troupe and playing a fictional president in a television show, but won backing from millions of Ukrainians who see their established politicians as unwilling or unable to end rampant corruption.

“We did all this together. Thank you everyone.” Mr Zelenskiy (41) told a cheering crowd at his packed campaign headquarters on Sunday night.

“Thanks to all Ukrainians who voted for me . . . and those who didn’t. I promise that I will never let you down,” he added, before thanking the military and security services for defending the country during its undeclared war with Russia.

“And while I’m still not officially president, I can speak as a citizen of Ukraine. To all post-Soviet countries: look at us – everything is possible.”

Mr Zelenskiy says he will lean heavily on a team of experts to lead his 42-million-strong country, which has lost 13,000 people and control over much of its eastern industrial heartland during five years of fighting with Russian-led militants.

Ukrainian president and presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko following exit poll results. Photograph: Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA
Ukrainian president and presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko following exit poll results. Photograph: Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA

‘I will fight for Ukraine’

Mr Poroshenko (53) warned that the political neophyte will be outsmarted by Russian president Vladimir Putin, and may do the bidding of Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi, a billionaire whose channel broadcasts the comedian’s shows.

“Next month I will leave the post of head of state. That is what the majority of Ukrainians have decided, and I accept their decision,” an emotional Mr Poroshenko told his supporters.

“I will leave office but I will stay in politics, and I will fight for Ukraine,” he declared, with an eye to parliamentary elections due this autumn.

“Our team must defend the achievements that we have fought for in extremely difficult circumstances – our European and Euro-Atlantic strategy, the principles and goals that we have stood for these five years and which are now under threat.”

Mr Zelenskiy insisted he also wants Ukraine to integrate with the West and never to return to Russian domination, and he denied being beholden to Mr Kolomoyskyi, who fell out with Mr Poroshenko over the forced nationalisation of his bank in 2016.

The EU and US hope for a smooth transition of power in Ukraine, which they have propped up with vital financial and diplomatic support since it pivoted to the West after the 2014 Maidan revolution.

Mr Poroshenko said on Sunday night he was ready to give help and advice to Mr Zelenskiy if he needed it – an offer the future president said he welcomed.

A colourful and bruising campaign – culminating in a rowdy debate in Kiev’s biggest football stadium – was also closely watched in Russia, where Mr Putin has ruled for 20 years and national elections are tightly controlled and highly predictable.