Comic leads as Ukraine votes for president
KIEV – Agence France-Presse
A comedian whose political experience is limited to playing the president on TV is likely to top the first round of voting as Ukrainians go to the polls on March 31.
Actor Volodymyr Zelensky's bid started as a long shot but he has leapfrogged establishment politicians amid public frustration over corruption and stagnating living standards.
The 41-year-old star of the political comedy "Servant of the People," which returned for its third season this week, is polling above 25 percent, well ahead of his nearest rivals.
If Zelensky wins the presidency he will lead a country of 45 million people that in recent years has known war, loss of territory and uprisings, and remains one of the poorest nations in Europe.
The main question now is whether incumbent Petro Poroshenko or ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko will meet Zelensky in a run-off next month.
One recent survey put them neck and neck at around 17 percent, though another showed Poroshenko pulling ahead of ally-turned-foe Tymoshenko to make the second round.
Zelensky, who has a young support base, acknowledges that he has "no experience" but nonetheless insists he has the strength to lead Ukraine.
"I don't have all the knowledge but I'm learning this now," he told AFP in an interview this month.
"I don't want to look like an idiot."
Even in the final days of campaigning he has eschewed rallies and interviews in favor of playing gigs with his comedy troupe.
Critics point to the vagueness of his manifesto, the key pledges of which were chosen following a public vote on social media.
But supporters say only a brand new face can clean up Ukraine's murky politics.
Some accuse Zelensky of acting as a front for the interests of oligarch Igor Kolomoysky, who owns the channel that broadcasts the entertainer's shows, but he denies any political links.
Polls opened at 8:00 am (0500 GMT) with exit poll results expected around 8:00 pm, and first preliminary results several hours later.
Poroshenko was elected president in 2014 after a revolution forced Kremlin-backed predecessor Viktor Yanukovych from office.
The pro-Western uprising was followed by Russia's annexation of Crimea and a conflict in eastern Ukraine between Kiev's forces and Moscow-backed separatists.
Poroshenko came in on promises to tackle graft, align Ukraine with the West and shut down the fighting in the east.
But five years on, corruption is widespread and the simmering separatist conflict has cost 13,000 lives.
"I am absolutely confident that despite all of Russia's attempts... the Kremlin will not block the European or Euro-Atlantic integration of my country," Poroshenko said after his final campaign rally.
The 53-year-old president has positioned himself as the only person able to stand up to the Kremlin and has promised to return Crimea to Ukraine if he is re-elected.
The pledge has been widely dismissed as unrealistic.
Tymoshenko - who was once known for her traditional plaited hairstyle but now opts for a more conventional pony tail - has focused on the cost of living.
She has promised to cut consumer gas prices in half and boost pensions as she appeals to an older base during her third bid for the presidency.
With a record 39 candidates on the first-round ballot, analysts say the race remains open despite Zelensky's dominance in the polls.
Barring a shock result in which one candidate crosses the 50 percent threshold in the first round, a two-person run-off is to be held on April 21.