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Polls Put Comedian Zelenskyy Ahead In Ukrainian Presidential Election

Volodymyr Zelenskyy
Volodymyr Zelenskyy

KYIV -- A comedian with no political experience secured the most votes in Ukraine’s presidential election on March 31, exit polls predicted, but they suggested he would fall short of the absolute majority needed to win outright in the first round.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who stars in a TV comedy series about a teacher who becomes president after denouncing corruption, had at least 30 percent of the vote, according to three separate polls. All polls put incumbent Petro Poroshenko in second place with about 18 percent of the vote. They showed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in third with about 14 percent.

If the polling data is confirmed by official results, Zelenskyy and Poroshenko will advance to a runoff on April 21.

With less than 1 percent of votes counted, the Central Election Commission (CEC), said Zelenskyy had 26 percent, followed by Poroshenko with 20 percent, and Timoshenko with 17 percent.

'Bit Anxious'

"Today a new life starts, without corruption," Zelenskyy, 41, said at his party headquarters in Kyiv shortly after polls closed at 8 p.m. local time.

Asked how he was feeling, Zelensky said he was a "bit anxious."

"I'm a living person. My wife and friends are at my side, that makes it easier for me. It's just a huge responsibility. I understand what responsibility is, so I...I feel fine."

Poroshenko 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 Kyiv.

Poroshenko 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 fought 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.

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.

Tymoshenko, 58, who was among the leaders of the 2004-05 Orange Revolution against a flawed presidential vote, campaigned heavily on anti-Poroshenko sentiment and appeals to populism, including pledges to cut gas prices to households by half within a month of taking office and drastically raising 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 a resurgent Russia in check.

Ukraine's Interior Ministry said it had received more than 1,600 complaints about electoral violations two hours before polls closed.

It said the reported violations included unauthorized campaigning at polling stations, attempts to bribe voters, and removal of ballots.

At a press conference late on March 31, Tetyana Slipachuk, head of the CEC, said there had been "no systemic violations" during the balloting.

"We can say that the will of the Ukrainian people has been expressed," Slipachuk said.

The CEC said by late afternoon "no systemic violations" had been reported.

“There are isolated instances, but they are classic for any voting process in any election campaign,” CEC Secretary Natalia Bernatska told journalists.

The CEC later issued figures showing turnout at nearly 64 percent.

At a Kyiv polling station, the entire Dobriyvechir family of four told RFE/RL they voted for Zelenskyy, with daughter Anastasia, 19, saying she believed the comic-turned-candidate is a "good man" who shares the same values in real life as the fictional president he plays in his hit sitcom Servant of the People.

"He's going to make our country better" like he does in his show, she said. Her mother, Svitlana, said that Zelenskyy was the obvious choice for her, because life hasn't become better under incumbent Poroshenko. "Life has gotten worse in the past five years," she said. "Utility prices have gotten higher and pensioners like our grandmother can't afford to live."

"Poroshenko delivered visa-free travel and the Tomos" -- the declaration that created a new, independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine -- "but otherwise he didn't do enough for us," Svitlana added.

Veteran campaigners Poroshenko and Tymoshenko, a onetime gas-industry entrepreneur who was jailed over a gas deal with Russia after her second-place finish in the 2010 presidential race, both have hefty party structures behind them.

Ongoing War In The East

Ukrainians' interest in the election has reportedly risen over the past year, with many citing the simmering war, national unity and reconciliation, and the fight against corruption as their highest priorities.

In the southeastern port city of Mariupol, near the front line of the conflict that has cost some 13,000 lives over five years, a soldier who was casting his ballot said the war is "the main question for everyone."

"The country is tired of this situation, people are tired," 22-year-old soldier Sergiy told AFP.

Zelenskyy has appealed to young people in particular with carefully crafted social-media messages like the crowdsourcing of a potential cabinet, and taken a tough line against corruption, including proposing a lifetime ban on public office for cheats and a tax amnesty to encourage the repatriation of offshore assets.

No Joke: TV Comic Leads Ukrainian Presidential Race
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WATCH: No Joke: A Comic And Wannabe President

Critics have questioned Zelenskyy's ties to a controversial exiled oligarch whose TV station was blitzing viewers with his programs ahead of the voting. But it was unclear whether those attacks or reports linking Zelenskyy to ongoing Russian businesses and accusing him of a failure to disclose a multimillion-dollar Italian villa would tarnish his transparency credentials in the eyes of voters.

Poroshenko has suffered from generally high unfavorability ratings over perceived failures to enact political and economic reforms or tackle widespread corruption, however. And more recently, some of the ultranationalists who have enjoyed relative impunity under his wartime administration turned on Poroshenko over a military-procurement scandal involving alleged profiteering by the son of a longtime ally.

Chocolate Mogul

But the 53-year-old chocolate mogul has also kept the broadly popular aim of further integration with Europe high on his agenda, and earlier this year he helped win autocephaly for an Orthodox Church of Ukraine to buoy his nationalist credentials.

After voting alongside his family on March 31, Poroshenko said a fair vote was essential for Ukraine's progress.

"This is an absolutely necessary condition for our moving forward, for the return of Ukraine into the family of European nations and our membership of the European Union and NATO," Poroshenko said.

Poroshenko Says Russia Did Not Want Him In Second Round
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WATCH: Poroshenko Says Russia Did Not Want Him In Second Round

At his final campaign rally, on March 28 in Lviv, Poroshenko told the crowd that the country had "just started to make up the losses after the crisis" brought on by Russia's 2014 invasion but vowed that "the worst, friends, is definitely over," according to AFP.

None of the other 36 candidates consistently polled over 10 percent, although possible dark horses include former gas executive and ex-minister Yuriy Boyko, an opposition leader who has advocated repairing relations with Russia.

All three of the leading candidates are seen as generally pro-Western.

"Ukraine in any case is moving in the direction of the West," dpa quoted Vadim Karasyov, director of the Institute of Global Strategies, as saying in the run-up to the election.

Five years removed from street unrest that unseated pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych after he tacked away from closer cooperation with the European Union, opinion polls suggest an overwhelming majority of Ukraine's 44 million people still want dramatic change in domestic policy.

But the result will resonate well beyond Ukraine, which abuts Russia to the east, Belarus to the north, a handful of EU members to the west, and Moldova and the strategically important Black Sea to the south.

Moscow could be watching closely for opportunities to undermine Ukrainian defiance in the face of the separatist threat that Moscow has stoked since Russian troops invaded Ukraine's Crimea in 2014 or to chip away at Western support for Kyiv.

A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose administration has depicted Kyiv's post-Euromaidan leadership as a "junta," this week declined to say "whether the election could be recognized as illegitimate," according to TASS.

Ukrainian security officials warned in the final week of campaigning that "Russia intends to carry out unprecedented cyberattacks" against the country's election supervisors "in order to cast doubt on the legitimacy" of the vote. ​

Observers like the Atlantic Council's Brian Meffordhave predicted that the voting "is likely to be the cleanest and least fraudulent election in Ukraine's history."

But Olha Aivazovska, who heads the Opora civil network, which has alleged campaign-funding violations and supervisory and other problems, suggested that Ukrainians were showing the "lowest level of confidence in the electoral process in the history of elections in Ukraine."

If no one wins a majority outright, the top two candidates advance to a runoff on April 21.

The World Bank warned last year that Ukraine's economic "outlook depends on the pace of reforms and on reaching an agreement on the [International Monetary Fund] program," which has extended billions in credit to Kyiv since the conflict broke out five years ago, crippling Ukraine's economy and devaluing its currency.