As virtually every poll indicated going into Sunday’s presidential election in Ukraine, comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy – whose political resume consists solely of playing the unlikely president in a satirical TV show – won the first round by a wide margin, but not wide enough to avoid a runoff against incumbent Petro Poroshenko.
Fox News noted there were 39 candidates in the race, perhaps half a dozen of them with significant constituencies, so it would have been extremely difficult for anyone to beat the 50 percent threshold required to win outright in the first round. Zelenskiy ended up with a little over 30 percent of the vote, according to preliminary results, compared to 18 percent for Poroshenko and 14 percent for third-place finisher Yulia Tymoshenko.
Tymoshenko had been seen as Poroshenko’s most credible challenger going into the election, but Zelenskiy blew past her in a meteoric rise attributed to voter dissatisfaction with the entire Ukrainian political class. Zelenskiy campaigned hard against corruption, capitalizing on the popularity of his television character, a well-meaning goofball who wins the presidency in a fluke and unleashes merry hell upon the calcified establishment.
In fact, Fox News quoted Ukrainians who said they liked the way Zelenskiy came off on television and hoped he could play the same character in real life:
Zelenskiy’s lack of experience helped his popularity with voters amid broad disillusionment with the country’s political elite.
“Zelenskiy has shown us on the screen what a real president should be like,” said voter Tatiana Zinchenko, 30. “He showed what the state leader should aspire for — fight corruption by deeds, not words, help the poor, control the oligarchs.”
“(We have) no trust in old politicians. They were at the helm and the situation in the country has only gotten worse — corruption runs amok and the war is continuing,” said businessman Valery Ostrozhsky, 66, another Zelenskiy voter.
The 41-year-old comedian was undaunted by the conventional wisdom that suggests every other candidate’s constituents will unite behind his opponent. “This is only the first step toward a great victory,” he declared.
Zelenskiy could get a fresh jolt of energy in the runoff election by hundreds of allegations of voter fraud registered with the police on election day, including charges of bribing election officials, tampering with ballots, and offers to pay voters if they voted for Poroshenko or Tymoshenko. Surveys taken before the election showed most Ukrainians expected such irregularities, and also expected Moscow to meddle in the election.
“If I win, we will have a strong democratic Ukraine without corruption. This is the biggest problem,” he told CNBC in a Sunday evening interview.
Zelenskiy told CNBC he would also take a different approach toward the conflict with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine and seek a diplomatic solution. “We don’t want war. We don’t want to fight. We want to stop the war in Donbass,” he said.
Zelenskiy ruled out one commonly suggested path to victory, which would involve joining forces with Tymoshenko and other opposition candidates to unseat Poroshenko. He said he was determined to run against the entire Ukrainian political establishment.
“We aren’t making deals with anyone,” he said. “We are young people. We don’t want to see all the past in our future, the future of our country.”
Poroshenko took a “message received” approach to Sunday night’s results, appearing relieved that he at least overcame the challenge from Tymoshenko and made it to the runoffs.
“I critically and soberly understand the signal that society gave today to the acting authorities. It’s a tough lesson for me and my team. It’s a reason for serious work to correct mistakes made over the past years,” he said.
Poroshenko also insinuated Zelenskiy and his other chief rivals are puppets of oligarch Igor Kolomoyskyi, whose media conglomerate includes the station that broadcasts Zelenskiy’s show.
“Fate pitted me against Kolomoyskyi’s puppet in the runoff. We won’t leave a single chance for Kolomoyskyi,” he said.
Poroshenko wrote a Facebook post on Monday in which he said Zelenskiy’s success at the polls was the work of “Kremlin agents.” Ukrainian political analysts anticipated Poroshenko will spend the next three weeks doing everything he can to make voters nervous about Zelenskiy’s lack of experience, portraying him as easy prey for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The runoff election is scheduled for April 21.