Comedian Volodymyr Zelensky is favorite to become Ukraine’s president after results on 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 Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
The two are to meet in a runoff vote on April 21 after almost 93 percent of counted ballots showed former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko and dozens of other candidates falling out of the race.
If Zelensky wins then, as polls and analysts suggest, he would 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 on Sunday.
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.
However, 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.”
However, a monitoring mission by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe on Monday said 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 EU 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 said.
Political analyst Anatoliy Oktysyuk of Kiev’s Democracy House think tank said that it would be “difficult” for Poroshenko to knock the comic off course in the head-to-head round.
Poroshenko “has no room for growth. He has played all his cards,” Oktysyuk said. “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 Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Kremlin 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 nation’s richest men when he took office — said he would end the fighting, tackle graft and align the country with the West.
However, 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.
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.
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