Written by Andrew Higgins and Iuliia Mendel
A comedian best known for playing the role of an accidental president on television easily won the real-life election for president in Ukraine on Sunday, exit polls indicated, putting a political neophyte at the helm of a country at the center of the West’s geopolitical struggle with Moscow.
Volodymyr Zelensky, a 41-year-old comic actor who has never held public office, won more than 70% of the vote, a decisive victory over the incumbent president, Petro O. Poroshenko, according to exit polling by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation.
Zelensky’s victory, if confirmed by official results, would give Ukraine its first Jewish leader and deliver a stinging rebuke to a political and business establishment represented by Poroshenko, a billionaire candy tycoon who campaigned on the nationalist slogan “army, language, faith.”
Speaking at his campaign headquarters in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, moments after the scale of his apparent victory became clear, Zelensky took a jab at Russia and other former Soviet lands that have turned elections into empty rituals that merely confirm their authoritarian leaders’ continued rule.
“As long as I am not officially a president, I can say as a citizen of Ukraine to all countries of the post-Soviet Union: Look at us — everything is possible,” Zelensky said.
Poroshenko conceded that exit polls suggested that his presidency — which began in 2014 after street protests ousted Ukraine’s deeply corrupt, pro-Russian president, Viktor F. Yanukovych — was over.
The prospect of a smooth transfer of power shows how far Ukraine has moved away from Russia, where listless elections offer no real competition and, for nearly 20 years, have kept President Vladimir Putin in power.
“The beauty of this election is that we did not know when it started who was going to win,” said David J. Kramer, a Russia expert who was an assistant secretary of state under President George W. Bush. “It is not a preordained exercise.”
As of Sunday afternoon, polling had been calm and free of notable irregularities, said Kramer, who is in Ukraine with a team of election observers from the International Republican Institute, an independent group.