A comedian whose only political experience consists of playing a president on TV cruised toward a landslide victory in Ukraine’s presidential election Sunday in what was seen as a reaction against the country’s entrenched corruption and low standard of living.
Results from 52% of polling stations’ tallies showed sitcom star Volodymyr Zelenskiy receiving 73% of the vote and President Petro Poroshenko about 25% — a crushing rebuke to Poroshenko’s five years in office.
Even before results started trickling in, Poroshenko accepted defeat based on exit polls, saying: “I am leaving office, but I want to firmly underline that I am not leaving politics.”
Zelenskiy, for his part, promised wide changes at the top echelons of government and said his No. 1 task would be securing the release of about 170 Ukrainian military members taken prisoner in the east or in Russia.
Ukraine has been plagued by rampant graft, a sickly economy and a grinding, five-year war with Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country that has killed over 13,000 people.
After his apparent election, Zelenskiy said he would engage Russia to try to end the conflict. He also said, without giving details, that “we will make a very powerful information war” in order to stop the fighting.
He also suggested, in a remark that could grate on Russia, that his victory could be a model for other former Soviet states that want to move forward from ossified politics: “To all the countries of the former Soviet Union — look at us, everything is possible.”
Although the early results were a small fraction of the vote, the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine congratulated Zelenskiy, as did NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg.
Zelenskiy, 41, became famous nationwide for his comic portrayal in a Ukrainian TV series of a high school teacher who becomes president after a video rant against corruption goes viral. In a case of life imitating television, Zelenskiy denounced graft as a real candidate.
Although Zelenskiy was criticized for a vague campaign platform and never holding public office, voters appeared to cast aside those concerns in favor of a thorough sweep of Ukraine’s political leadership.
“I have grown up under the old politicians and only have seen empty promises, lies and corruption,” said Lyudmila Potrebko, a 22-year-old computer programmer who voted for Zelenskiy. “It’s time to change that.”
Poroshenko was a billionaire candy magnate and former foreign minister before he took office in 2014 after huge street protests drove his Russia-friendly predecessor to flee the country. Although he instituted some reforms, critics said he had not done nearly enough to curb corruption.
Poroshenko positioned himself as a president who could stand up to Russia and said Zelenskiy would be easy prey for Moscow.
Although the Kremlin despises Poroshenko, Zelenskiy’s apparent victory was greeted noncommittally in Russia.
“We do not yet associate hopes with the winner,” Konstantin Kosachev, head of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of the Russian Parliament, was quoted as saying by state news agency Tass.
Millions of people living in the rebel-controlled east and in Russia-annexed Crimea were unable to vote. Russia seized Crimea in 2014, and fighting in the east erupted that same year.
Poroshenko campaigned on the same promise he made when he was elected in 2014: to lead the nation of 42 million into the European Union and NATO. Zelenskiy pledged likewise to keep Ukraine on a Westward course but said the country should only join NATO if voters give their approval in a referendum.
Poroshenko’s five years in office saw the creation of a new Ukrainian Orthodox Church independent of Moscow’s church, a schism he championed. Also, Ukraine reached a visa-free deal with the EU that led to the exodus of millions of skilled workers for better living conditions elsewhere in Europe.
“Poroshenko has done a lot of good things for the country — creating its own church, getting the visa-free deal and taking Ukraine away from the empire,” said 44-year-old businessman Volodymyr Andreichenko, who voted for him.
But Poroshenko’s message fell flat with many voters struggling to survive on meager wages and pay soaring utility bills.
“We have grown poor under Poroshenko and have to save to buy food and clothing,” said 55-year-old sales clerk Irina Fakhova. “We have had enough of them getting mired in corruption and filling their pockets and treating us as fools.”
Zelenskiy’s image has been shadowed by his admission that he had commercial interests in Russia through a holding company, and by his business ties to self-exiled Ukrainian billionaire businessman Ihor Kolomoyskyi. Kolomoyskyi owns the TV station that aired the actor’s sitcom, “Servant of the People,” and his other comedy shows.