Comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy Widens Lead in Ukraine Presidential Race

Ukrainian entertainer and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy performs on stage in western Ukrainian city of Uzhhorod, on Feb. 9, 2019.
AFP

Polls last month showing comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy as the leading candidate in Ukraine’s presidential race appear to have been no fluke, as the latest round of polling shows him widening his lead over incumbent Petro Poroshenko and opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.

A poll cited by Reuters on Monday had Zelenskiy in the lead with 25.1 percent, followed by Poroshenko with 16.6 percent and Tymoshenko with 16.2 percent. The election will be held on March 31.

The movement in second and third place may prove more significant than Zelenskiy ticking up a point or two, as the once-fading Tymoshenko appears to have recovered and closed the gap with Poroshenko.

Under the Ukrainian system, if the leading candidate does not take 50 percent of the vote, a runoff between the first and second place candidates will be held. Zelenskiy seems very unlikely to cross the 50 percent threshold and analysts believe he will lose the runoff to whichever candidate he faces as the Poroshenko-Tymoshenko vote consolidates against him.

The Kyiv Post on Sunday published an interesting analytical face-off between two former Ukrainian finance ministers, Natalie Jaresko and her successor Oleksandr Danylyuk. Jaresko viewed Zelenskiy’s success as a protest against the Ukrainian political establishment but predicted voters will consolidate around a more serious candidate for the presidency after they send their message and vent their frustrations in the first round of voting.

“Ukrainians are electing a wartime leader who must have a team in place. The only candidates that should be considered for the job are those who want to join the European Union and NATO. This is the fifth anniversary of Maidan, and if these aren’t the goals then what did people die for?” she asked, referring to the revolution that toppled notoriously corrupt pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Danylyuk, on the other hand, was favorably impressed by Zelenskiy’s sincerity as a reformer and thought he could assemble a team of advisers that convinces Ukrainian voters he can handle the demands of the presidency despite his inexperience. Danylyuk said he is helping Zelenskiy assemble such a team but has not yet decided if he will join it himself.

The Kyiv Post noted that more Ukrainian voters are slipping into the “undecided” category as the election approaches, possibly due to a string of political scandals involving Poroshenko, Tymoshenko, and their allies. The number of voters who named Zelenskiy as a second choice has grown considerably, suggesting more Ukrainians see him as a legitimate contender, but only 17 percent of poll respondents thought he could actually win the election.

Another twist in the final weeks of the election could be the resurgence of another candidate in the crowded race. The Kyiv Post speculated former defense minister Anatoliy Grytsenko, currently in fifth place with 7.7 percent, could pick up support from disgruntled Poroshenko voters and those who favored Andriy Sadoviy, the mayor of Lviv, who dropped out of the race this weekend and endorsed Grytsenko.

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