Comedian Volodymyr Zelensky on course to win Ukraine election

Political newcomer has appealed to voters fed up with corruption, low living standards and years of political upheaval

Volodymyr Zelensky is mobbed by reporters as he turns up to vote
(Image credit: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

A 41-year-old comedian who has never run for public office is on course to win the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election.

Political newcomer Volodymyr Zelensky, who plays a fictional teacher-turned-president in a popular TV series, has consistently led opinion polls in a three-horse race against incumbent president Petro Poroshenko and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

No candidate is expected to win a first-round majority, however polls suggest Zelensky would have a clear lead over either of his nearest challengers if it went to a second-round run-off “in a rebuke of the country’s leadership”, says The Guardian.

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Appealing to voters fed up with entrenched corruption, low living standards and years of political upheaval, the BBC's Jonah Fisher says he has torn up the rule book for election campaigning, holding no rallies and few interviews and instead using social media to appeal to younger voters.

The Guardian says “Zelensky’s dark horse campaign is largely counting on high turnout among younger voters eager for change in the country and disappointed with stalled reforms and a sluggish economy”.

“Heavy on humour, light on policy”, the Daily Telegraph says “he has shunned stump speeches in favour of skits about ditzy female football referees as he tours Ukraine with his comedy troupe”.

“He appears to have no strong political views apart from a wish to be new and different,” says Fisher.

In a break from tradition, his pledge to run for a single five-year term to tackle corruption has won him widespread support and “his readiness to speak both Russian and Ukrainian, at a time when language rights are a hugely sensitive topic, has gained him support in Ukraine's largely Russian-speaking east”, says the BBC.

Labelled Populism 2.0 by some, “like Donald Trump, Zelensky is running on the strength of his tough-talking TV character, but rather than a border wall and trade tariffs he promises that ‘everything will be okay’”, reports the Telegraph.

By contrast, incumbent president Petro Poroshenko aimed to appeal to conservative Ukrainians through his slogan “Army, Language, Faith”.

One of Ukraine's wealthiest oligarchs, he was elected in a snap vote after former pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was toppled in the February 2014 Maidan Revolution.

“At stake is the leadership of a country on the front line of the West’s standoff with Russia” reports Reuters, and Poroshenko has campaigned on his ability to play tough with the Kremlin.

In the five years since he took power, “Poroshenko has fought to integrate the country with the European Union and Nato, while strengthening the military which is fighting Kremlin-backed separatists in the east of the country”, says the news agency.

While they differ widely on style and tone, on this key issue Zelensky and Poroshenko are generally aligned.

In fact, all three leading contenders have expressed largely pro-EU views during the campaign, while none of the presidential hopefuls who back closer ties with Russia have performed well in polls.

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