Ukraine braced for election battle as comedian eyes presidency

Heavyweight rivals flag up Volodymyr Zelenskiy's inexperience and oligarch links

Volodymyr Zelenskiy: has largely campaigned online through social media and YouTube while touring the country with his comedy troupe. Photograph: Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

Volodymyr Zelenskiy: has largely campaigned online through social media and YouTube while touring the country with his comedy troupe. Photograph: Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

 

Comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy is tipped to win the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election on Sunday, but two political heavyweights are fighting hard to peg him back in a vote clouded by fears of fraud, violence and Russian interference.

Incumbent Petro Poroshenko and two-time former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko are Mr Zelenskiy’s main rivals in a field of 39 candidates, and they have warned Ukrainians not to take a risk on the untested political novice.

Saturday is an official “day of silence” when campaigning is banned, but Mr Zelenskiy (41) will feature prominently on the 1+1 channel of oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky in the comedy shows that have made him famous – and as narrator of an apposite documentary on Ronald Reagan, the actor who became US president.

On screen Mr Zelenskiy plays a schoolteacher pitched into the role of president, and he appeals to the many Ukrainians who are angry with established politicians who failed to keep their promises after the 2014 Maidan revolution.

He has largely campaigned online through social media and YouTube while touring the country with his comedy troupe, and he has avoided debates and major interviews, fuelling criticism of his lack of experience and adding to concerns that he might do the political bidding of Mr Kolomoisky.

Lurid claims

After 1+1 aired lurid claims about Mr Poroshenko, he vowed this week to take legal action against “the attacks of a major fugitive oligarch who sits abroad and thinks he will control the strings of Ukrainian puppets”.

“Neither Kolomoisky nor [Russian president Vladimir] Putin will decide who becomes the Ukrainian president,” he added.

Presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko: accused Poroshenko of being part of Ukraine’s old ‘corrupt clan system’. Photograph: Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA
Presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko: accused Poroshenko of being part of Ukraine’s old ‘corrupt clan system’. Photograph: Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA

Many billboards for Mr Poroshenko now carry one word – “Think!” – as he raises doubts over Mr Zelenskiy’s ability to be commander-in-chief of a nation fighting its sixth year of war with Russian-led militants in the Donbas region.

Mr Poroshenko (53) dismisses polls that have consistently placed him well behind Mr Zelenskiy and almost tied with Ms Tymoshenko; the top two will face a run-off on April 21st if, as expected, no one secures an outright majority on Sunday.

In one of her last campaign appearances, Ms Tymoshenko (58) accused Mr Poroshenko of being part of Ukraine’s old “corrupt clan system” of self-serving politicians and businessmen.

In what appeared to be a dig at Mr Zelenskiy, she said this venal elite wanted the next president to be a “lapdog” who “doesn’t understand anything about the state of things in the country or what to do with the old system”.

Buy votes

Mr Poroshenko and Ms Tymoshenko hope their big party networks around the country can get their supporters to the ballot box, and their camps have been accused of planning to buy votes on Sunday.

Ukraine’s security service said on Friday it had discovered preparations by hackers “controlled by the Russian special services” for a cyber attack that “would probably involve creating maximum social effect and negative information interference” during the elections.

Separately, democracy watchdogs are concerned over the far-right National Militia’s plans to send hundreds of members to monitor the voting, which will also be overseen by international observers, including 24 from Ireland.