Comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy comfortably won the first round of Ukraine's presidential election on Sunday and is likely to face incumbent Petro Poroshenko in an April 21st run-off, exit polls suggested.
Three polls gave Mr Zelenskiy about 30 per cent of votes, ahead of Mr Poroshenko on about 18 per cent and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko on about 14 per cent – although her camp said it believed she had actually come second.
“Today we’re together and each of us is working hard to help our country flourish. I’m terribly grateful to you all,” Mr Zelenskiy said on Sunday night in a video on his Facebook page, after a campaign powered by his social media posts, television programmes and comedy shows around the country.
After casting his ballot in Kiev, Mr Zelenskiy said he had voted for a “very decent, suitable person”.
“A new life is beginning, a life without corruption and bribes; life in a new country, a country of dreams,” he added.
Mr Zelenskiy (41) is a complete political novice who, in his television show, Servant of the People, plays a schoolteacher pitched into the role of president.
He appeals to the many Ukrainians who have lost faith in established politicians and he promises to sweep clean the corridors of power, but his campaign offered more style than substance and included few detailed policy plans.
Corrupt and autocratic
Mr Poroshenko was elected after the 2013-2014 Maidan revolution, when protests against the corrupt and autocratic regime of then president Viktor Yanukovich ended in bloodshed and he fled with relatives and allies to Russia; in response to Kiev's westward turn, Moscow seized Crimea and fomented a separatist war in eastern Ukraine that has killed 13,000 people and displaced 1.6 million.
The confectionary tycoon has overseen reforms to the healthcare and energy sectors and state procurement, while strengthening the military and securing recognition of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s independence from Moscow.
Critics accuse him, however, of preserving an opaque system of governance based on backroom deals between businessmen and their political cronies, and of shielding corrupt judges, officials and prosecutors rather than instituting the rule of law.
Puppet for enemies
“I am ready for deep and substantive dialogue with those whom I failed to convince in the first round,” Mr Poroshenko (53) said on Sunday night.
“I’d like to appeal to those under 30 years of age. You see the changes in the country, but you want them to be deeper and faster. I completely share your wish,” he added, while urging them to “unite” with him.
“I fully understand the reasons for your dissatisfaction. I have heard you and I ask you to hear me.”
Mr Poroshenko has suggested Mr Zelenskiy is too inexperienced to lead the nation and may serve as a “puppet” for one of his bitter enemies, the powerful oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky.
Ms Tymoshenko (58), a two-time former premier who was jailed under Mr Yanukovich, wooed voters with promises to raise pensions and cut utility bills, which analysts warned could breach an International Monetary Fund deal that is crucial to Ukraine's finances.