KYIV -- Voters in Ukraine are almost certainly headed for a presidential election runoff pitting comedian and political newcomer Volodymyr Zelenskyy against incumbent Petro Poroshenko in a country struggling with a war against Russia-backed separatists, Moscow’s seizure of a key chunk of its territory, a sluggish economy, and rampant corruption.
With more than 96 percent of ballots counted from the March 31 election, Zelenskyy was on pace for a strong first-place finish with 30.2 percent of the vote, according to results from the Central Election Commission (CEC). Poroshenko was well behind with 15.9 percent, followed by former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who had 13.4 percent.
The numbers mirrored three separate exit polls, which showed Zelenskyy, who portrays a teacher-turned-president in a television sitcom, with at least 30 percent. All the polls put Poroshenko in second with about 18 percent, while Tymoshenko followed with about 14 percent.
International observers said on April 1 that the election was "well administered” and “competitive."
"Fundamental freedoms were generally respected and candidates could campaign freely, yet numerous and credible indications of misuse of state resources and vote buying undermined the credibility of the process," Ilkka Kanerva, special coordinator of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) short-term observer mission, told a news conference in Kyiv.
CEC head Tetyana Slipachuk said that voting and counting of votes took place "without systemic violations."
"Therefore, we can say that we have completed the first stage of the election in accordance with the law,” Slipachuk added. “There will be a runoff.”
With no candidate getting 50 percent, the top two finishers will meet on April 21 in a runoff vote where Ukrainians face a stark choice between a political upstart who has made a showbiz career out of poking fun at politicians, or an incumbent who has dropped sharply in popularity amid allegations of graft and persistent economic challenges.
"Today a new life starts, without corruption," Zelenskyy, 41, said at his party headquarters in Kyiv shortly after polls closed.
"This is only the first step to a great victory," Zelenskyy told reporters, adding that he had ruled out "making any deals with anyone," including Tymoshenko, in order to get their support.
A somber Poroshenko, 53, said he felt "no euphoria" following the exit poll results.
"This is a harsh lesson for me and the authorities as a whole. It is a reason to work on our mistakes," he said at his campaign headquarters in the capital.
He also tried to put a positive spin on the exit polls, saying Russia did not want him in the second round.
"My friends, today you -- Ukrainians, we -- Ukrainians, smashed Russia's scenario for the first round [of Ukraine's elections], because Poroshenko was precisely the person they did not wish to see in the second round. That failed completely."
Poroshenko has pushed to integrate the country with the European Union and NATO, while strengthening the military which is fighting Russia-backed separatists in the east of the country.
While calling for their support in the second round, Poroshenko said the message behind the "protest" votes of younger Ukrainians had been heard.
"You see changes in the country, but want them to be quicker, deeper, and of higher quality. I have understood the motives behind your protest," he said.
The OSCE, which independently monitored the voting, said the first round offered a broad choice of candidates with strong turnout.
"Election day was well administrated and without disturbances," Doris Barnett, the head of the German delegation to the OSCE parliamentary assembly, told a news conference.
"The real work lies ahead. There are so many untouched reforms," she added.
The National Democratic Institute (NDI) election-observer delegation said that the election was “competitive and credible” despite the “long-standing need for electoral reforms.”
Poroshenko attempted to portray the politically inexperienced Zelenskyy as unprepared to hold the office, especially when it comes to dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
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.
Tymoshenko's campaign team, meanwhile, claimed its own exit polling showed her comfortably in second place.
At a news conference after the polls closed, Tymoshenko called on her supporters to head to polling stations to ensure an honest count.
The 58-year-old, who was among the leaders of the 2004-05 Orange Revolution that was sparked by a flawed presidential vote, campaigned heavily on anti-Poroshenko sentiment and pledged to cut household gas prices and drastically raise pensions.
Ukrainians and outsiders hope the eventual winner can bring much-needed stability and reform to a country that is a key transit route for Russian gas and an ally in Western efforts to keep the Kremlin in check.
Ukraine's Interior Ministry said it had received more than 1,600 complaints about electoral violations, included alleged unauthorized campaigning at polling stations, attempts to bribe voters, and removal of ballots.
Voter turnout was 64 percent, the Central Election Commission reported.