Ukraine Elections 2019: Comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy Is Front-Runner Ahead of First Round
Ukraine is voting in the first round of presidential elections with current leader Petro Poroshenko seeking re-election but the surprise front-runner is a comedian, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelenskiy, along with former PM Yulia Tymoshenko, have expressed largely pro-European views during campaigning.
None of the pro-Russian candidates are seen as serious contenders.
If no candidate gets more than 50% on March 31, the top two will fight it out in a second round on April 21.
A total of 39 candidates are on the ballot paper, but only the three front-runners are considered to have any chance of victory.
President Poroshenko has significant powers over security, defense and foreign policy and the ex-Soviet republic’s system is described as semi-presidential.
The current leader, one of Ukraine’s wealthiest oligarchs, was elected in a snap vote after former pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was toppled in the February 2014 Maidan Revolution, which was followed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and a Russian-backed insurgency in the east.
The next president will inherit a deadlocked conflict between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed separatists in the east, while Ukraine strives to fulfill EU requirements for closer economic ties.
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The EU says that about 12% of Ukraine’s 44 million people are disenfranchised, largely those who live in Russia and in Crimea, which Russia annexed in March 2014.
Separatist-controlled areas are boycotting the election.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy, 41, is aiming to turn his satirical TV show – in which he portrays an ordinary citizen who becomes president after fighting corruption – into reality.
He has done no rallies and few interviews, and appears to have no strong political views apart from a wish to be new and different.
The comedian’s extensive use of social media appeals to younger voters.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s readiness to speak both Russian and Ukrainian, at a time when language rights are a hugely sensitive topic, has gained him support in Ukraine’s largely Russian-speaking east.
Opinion polls suggest Volodymyr Zelenskiy will have a clear lead over Petro Poroshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko in the first round, and would retain it in a run-off against either of them.
Petro Poroshenko, 53, aims to appeal to conservative Ukrainians through his slogan “Army, Language, Faith”.
The current president says his backing for the military has helped keep the separatists in eastern Ukraine in check. He also negotiated an Association Agreement with the EU, including visa-free travel for Ukrainians. During his tenure the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has become independent of Russian control.
However, Poroshenko’s campaign has been dogged by corruption allegations, including a scandal over defense procurement, which erupted last month.
The third main contender is Yulia Tymoshenko, 58, who has served as prime minister and ran for president in 2010 and 2014. She played a leading role in the 2004 Orange Revolution, Ukraine’s first big push to ally itself with the EU.
The front-runner among the pro-Russian candidates, Yuriy Boyko, says he would “normalize” relations with Russia.