A comedian with a popular anti-corruption message but no political experience has taken the lead in the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election, early exit polls suggest.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy, 41, who plays a fictional president in a TV show, has consistently led opinion polls in a three-horse race against incumbent Petro Poroshenko and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
According to a preliminary exit poll based on ballots cast by 6pm on Sunday (local time), two hours before voting closed, Mr Zelenskiy had secured 30.6 per cent of the votes compared to Mr Poroshenko’s 17.8 per cent.
Meet the comedian running for president in Ukraine – polls suggest Volodymyr Zelenskiy is one of the frontrunners despite having no previous political experience
— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) February 7, 2019
At stake is the leadership of a country on the front line of the West’s standoff with Russia after the 2014 Maidan street protests ejected Mr Poroshenko’s Kremlin-friendly predecessor and Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula.
Investors are watching to see if the next president will push reforms required to keep the country in an International Monetary Fund bailout program that has supported Ukraine through war, sharp recession and a currency plunge.
No candidate is expected to receive more than half the votes, meaning the election would go to a run-off on April 21.
Out of a crowded field of 39 candidates, none of the likely winners wants to move Ukraine back into Russia’s orbit.
“I would like to say ‘thank you’ to all the Ukrainians who did not vote just for fun,” Mr Zelenskiy told his cheering supporters on Sunday evening.
“It is only the beginning. We will not relax.”
In keeping with the relaxed style of his campaign, Mr Zelenskiy’s election night venue provided a bar with free alcohol, table football and table tennis games.
Rival questions comedian’s ability to handle Putin
Mr Poroshenko called the result a “severe lesson”, especially from younger voters, and appealed for their support in the second round.
“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 after the exit poll.
Mr Poroshenko, who said the elections had been fair and in line with international standards, sought to portray Mr Zelenskiy as unfit to represent Ukraine abroad, especially in taking on Russian President Vladimir Putin in international talks.
“We must preserve sanctions as they are a powerful tool for making sure Russia also takes part in these discussions. And Russia won’t be represented by (Russian TV comedians) Maxim Galkin or Yevgeny Petrosyan, but actually, just so you know, Russia will be represented by Putin.”
He also played on a suspicion that Mr Zelenskiy’s campaign was masterminded by Ihor Kolomoisky, a tycoon whose channel airs Mr Zelenskiy’s shows. The two men deny being in cahoots.
“Fate decided to put me up against that Kolomoisky puppet in the second round. We won’t give Kolomoisky any chance,” Mr Poroshenko said.
Ms Tymoshenko, who had won 14.2 per cent of the votes, immediately challenged the accuracy of the result, saying her internal polling put her in second place behind Mr Zelenskiy.
She said at a press conference that she might contest the final result.