Ukrainians yesterday began voting in a runoff election expected to thrust a comedian with no prior political experience into the presidency of a country at war and hungry for change.
At stake is the leadership of a country on the front line of the West’s standoff with Russia following the 2014 Maidan street protests and the annexation of Crimea.
Surveys made Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who plays a fictitious president in a TV series, the overwhelming favorite to defeat Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, whose popularity has been dragged down by patchy efforts to tackle corruption and sliding living standards.
Both men — who traded insults and accusations in a rowdy debate in a soccer stadium in Kiev on Friday — have pledged to keep Ukraine on a pro-Western course.
However, a victory for Zelenskiy in yesterday’s second-round runoff would nonetheless be a dramatic departure in a country where previous presidential elections since independence were won by experienced politicians, including three former prime ministers.
Investors are seeking reassurances that whoever wins will accelerate reforms needed to attract foreign investment and keep the country in an IMF program that has supported Ukraine through war, recession and a currency plunge.
Zelenskiy’s unorthodox campaign relied heavily on quirky social media posts and comedy gigs instead of traditional rallies and leafletting.
He has also promised to fight corruption, a message that has resonated with Ukrainians who are fed up with politics as usual in a country of 42 million people that remains one of Europe’s poorest nearly three decades after winning independence from the Soviet Union.
An opinion poll by the KIIS research firm on Tuesday showed Zelenskiy with 72 percent of the vote and Poroshenko with 25 percent. The week before, a different survey put them on 61 percent and 24 percent respectively.
Just 9 percent of Ukrainians have confidence in their national government, the lowest of any electorate in the world, according to a Gallup poll published last month.
Poroshenko has sought to portray his opponent as a buffoonish populist whose incompetence would leave Ukraine vulnerable to Russia.
“I’m just an ordinary person who has come to break the system. I’m the result of your mistakes and promises,” Zelenskiy said during the stadium debate.
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