KIEV: A comedian with no political experience took a commanding lead in the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election, offering a fresh face to voters fed up with corruption in a country on the front line of the West’s standoff with Russia.
With three-quarters of votes counted on Monday, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a 41-year-old comic who plays a fictional president in a popular TV series, had won more than 30.5 percent.
It leaves President Petro Poroshenko in a distant second with just 16.6 percent of the vote, a hole that may be too deep to climb out from. He faced a public furious at his failure to stamp out corruption or improve living standards five years after a pro-Russian leader was swept out by a popular revolt.
Nationalist former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko placed third with 13.2 percent in a field of 39 candidates. Zelenskiy and Poroshenko will face each other in a run-off in three weeks.
Zelenskiy has been criticized for being light on policy detail, and a cheerful victory speech on Sunday night provided little further insight into what he would do if he wins.
“I would like to say ‘thank you’ to all the Ukrainians who did not vote just for fun,” Zelenskiy told cheering supporters on Sunday. “It is only the beginning, we will not relax.”
In keeping with the campaign’s laid-back style, his election night venue provided a bar with free alcohol and table football.
Poroshenko, 53, attacked Zelenskiy as fundamentally unserious, a reckless choice at a time when the country still faces a conflict against Russian-backed separatists.
President Vladimir Putin “dreams of a soft, pliant, tender, giggling, inexperienced, weak, ideologically amorphous and politically undecided president of Ukraine. Are we really going to give him that opportunity?” Poroshenko said.
But analysts said it would be tough for Poroshenko, a confectionary billionaire, to fight back to win the second round: “I find it hard to imagine how a gap that wide could be closed,” said Sergey Fursa, investment banker at Dragon Capital.
Zelenskiy’s advisers were predicting Zelenskiy would win the lion’s share of votes from the other defeated candidates, who campaigned against the status quo.
“If we believe the research done before the first round, then there will be big outflows (to Zelenskiy) from everyone,” said Dmytro Razumkov, Zelenskiy’s political adviser.
WHAT TO EXPECT?
In a country dependent on foreign loans, economists are trying to figure out whether Zelenskiy would stick to reforms and fiscal policies demanded by the International Monetary Fund.
“We would expect Zelenskiy to be put under greater pressure in the run-up to the second round to flesh out his policy agenda,” said Stuart Culverhouse, head of sovereign and fixed-income research at investment bank Exotix.
Poroshenko has tried to integrate the country with the European Union and NATO while strengthening the military.
More than 13,000 people have died in the conflict against separatists and Ukraine has lost control of parts of its industrial heartland. Major combat ended with a ceasefire in 2015 but deadly clashes still take place regularly.
Crimea has been annexed by Russia in a move that triggered international financial sanctions on Moscow, and Poroshenko has campaigned hard to keep the pressure on Russia.
But public opinion has turned firmly against the political establishment. Voters say politicians failed to deliver on expectations of honest government, despite the sacrifices made during the revolt that overthrew pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovich and the years of hardship and war that followed.
Just 9 percent of Ukrainians have confidence in their national government, the lowest of any electorate in the world, a Gallup poll published in March showed.
Zelenskiy tapped into this anti-establishment mood with a campaign packed with jokes, sketches and song-and-dance routines that poked fun at his political rivals. His campaign blurred the line between reality and his TV series, in which he plays an honest history teacher who accidentally becomes president.
“He embodies the perceived need for ‘new faces’ in politics and could sway the young, pro-reform electorate to his side,” said Economist Intelligence Unit analyst Agnese Ortolani.