Polls opened Sunday in Ukraine’s presidential runoff as the nation’s incumbent leader struggles to fend off a strong challenge by a comedian who denounces corruption and plays the role of president in a TV sitcom.
Opinion surveys ahead of the vote have shown 53-year-old President Petro Poroshenko trailing far behind comic actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy, reflecting public dismay with endemic corruption, a moribund economy and a five-year fight against Russia-backed insurgents in the country’s east.
Zelenskiy, 41, got twice as many votes as Poroshenko in the first round three weeks ago. Like his sitcom character, a teacher thrust into the presidency after a video of him blasting corruption goes viral, he has focused on fighting graft, riding the wave of public distrust of Ukraine’s political elite.
“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 cast her ballot for Zelenskiy. “It’s time to change that.”
Poroshenko, a billionaire candy magnate before taking office, has relied on traditional political barnstorming, using sympathetic television stations to extensively cover his appearances. Zelenskiy, however, has largely stayed away from the campaign trail and eschewed interviews. He has run his campaign mainly on Instagram, where he has 3.7 million followers.
Poroshenko’s attempts to counter the challenger online have often been awkward, including a video that showed Zelenskiy being run over by a truck with a streak resembling a line of cocaine left behind. There is no evidence that Zelenskiy, a fitness fan, uses drugs.
The campaign was marked by fierce mutual criticism and a jockeying for dominance, wrapping up with Friday’s debate at the nation’s largest sports arena in which both rivals fell on their knees in a melodramatic moment to ask forgiveness of those who lost relatives on the eastern battlefront.
Millions of Ukrainians who live in the rebel-controlled east and in Russia-annexed Crimea are unable to vote.
The incumbent 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 _ the goals that look elusive amid Ukraine’s economic problems, pervasive corruption and fighting in the east. A visa free deal with the EU spawned the exodus of millions of skilled workers for better living conditions elsewhere in Europe.
Poroshenko also has boasted of his successful push to create a new Ukrainian Orthodox Church independent from Moscow’s Patriarchate and pushed for a bill that would outlaw the Russian language, which remains widely spoken in Ukraine.
“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 has fallen flat with many voters who are 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, who comes from Ukraine’s mostly Russian-speaking east, has opposed the Russian language restrictions and mocked the creation of the new church as a campaign stunt.
He has focused heavily on corruption allegations that have dogged Poroshenko and showered the president with questions about his assets during Friday’s debate. Poroshenko denies any link to an alleged embezzlement scheme involving one of his companies and a top associate.
Like Poroshenko, Zelenskiy pledged to keep Ukraine’s on its pro-Western course, but said the country should only join NATO if voters approve that in a referendum.
He promised that his No. 1 priority would be direct talks with Russia to end fighting in eastern Ukraine that erupted after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014.
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 billionaire businessman Ihor Kolomoyskyi, a Poroshenko archrival who owns the TV station that aired the sitcom the actor starred in as well as his comedy shows.
“Both candidates stand for integration into Europe, both kneel to honour those killed in the war with Russia, both are linked to oligarchs,” 67-year-old teacher Dmytro Volokhovets said with a touch of sarcasm. “But Zelenskiy will win because he’s young and new.”
Just a few hours before polls opened, a court in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev heard a suit filed by a Zelenskiy foe who claimed that the actor tried to bribe voters when his campaign offered tickets to the debate and demanded that his registration be annulled. The court rejected the demand early Sunday.