- Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who plays a fictional president on Ukrainian TV, is edging closer to becoming a real one after beating out incumbent president Petro Poroshenko in the first round of national elections on Sunday.
- Zelenskiy has railed against corruption in Ukrainian politics and vowed to “stop the shooting” in eastern Ukraine, but has yet to give concrete solutions.
- He also faces scrutiny over his ties with a wealthy oligarch who faces multiple investigations into his business dealings in Ukraine.
- Zelenskiy and Poroshenko will face off in a second round of elections on April 21.
A Ukrainian comedian who plays a president on TV has inched closer to becoming a real one after comfortably beating the incumbent president in the first round of the country’s national elections.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who has no political experience, won 30.26% of the vote, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported, citing the country’s Central Election Commission.
Out of the 38 other candidates in the race Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s current president, came second with just less than 15.92% and Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister, came third with 13.38%, RFE/RL said.
With no candidates winning a majority of Sunday’s vote, the top two candidates – Zelenskiy and Poroshenko – will face each other again in a runoff vote on April 21.
Zelenskiy told his supporters at his election night party, which according to The Associated Press (AP) was complete with table football and free alcohol: “I would like to say ‘thank you’ to all the Ukrainians who did not vote just for fun.”
“It is only the beginning,” he added, according to the AP. “We will not relax.”
“Today a new life starts, without corruption,” he added, according to RFE/RL.
Zelenskiy’s TV character is eerily close to the truth
Zelenskiy acts in the TV series “Servant of the People,” a show that satirizes the Ukrainian elite and parodies serving politicians.
His character, Vasyl Holoborodko, is a schoolteacher that initially appears too naïve to survive in the corrupt environment of Ukrainian politics, but quickly becomes a strong leader with experience, the AP noted.
The show, which premiered in 2015, is wildly popular. Out of the 42 million people in Ukraine, some 20 million watch it, the AP reported.
Vague platform and no campaign meetings: The president Vladimir Putin ‘dreams of,’ according to his opponent
Zelenskiy’s politics are more moderate than the far-right populists who have dominated past elections, though his platform is vague.
He told the BBC earlier this year that he wanted to halt Ukraine’s brain drain and “stop the shooting” in eastern Ukraine – an area largely occupied by Russian-backed separatists – but failed to give a concrete solution to either of those ideas.
He has also refused to hold campaign meetings with voters, RFE/RL noted. He has promised, however, to rely on a team of professionals to shape his political and economic policies, the AP reported.
Poroshenko, a billionaire who made his money in the chocolate industry, has attacked Zelenskiy as a bad choice for the country as it remains under threat from Russia.
Poroshenko has been trying to bring his country closer to NATO and the European Union – two powers that Russian Vladimir Putin sees as a threat to Russian stability.
According to Reuters, Poroshenko said Sunday that Putin “dreams of a soft, pliant, tender, giggling, inexperienced, weak, ideologically amorphous and politically undecided president of Ukraine. Are we really going to give him that opportunity?”
Poroshenko’s popularity has also tanked in recent years amid bribery allegations and severe economic challenges facing the country, RFE/RL reported. And the 14% margin between Zelenskiy and Poroshenko in the first round of votes suggests that the comedian could win, political analysts say.
Serhiy Fursa, an investment banker at Dragon Capital in Kiev told Reuters: “I find it hard to imagine how a gap that wide could be closed.”
Mysterious oligarch ties
One aspect of Zelenskiy’s candidacy that remains mysterious, however, is his close relationship to Ihor Kolomoisky, an oligarch who owns Ukraine’s popular 1+1 TV channel, which airs “Servant of the People.”
Zelenskiy has faced scrutiny for his relationship with Kolomoisky given his campaign against corruption and oligarchs’ influence on politics.
Kolomoisky lives in self-imposed exile in Israel because of the multiple ongoing investigations into his business dealings in Ukraine, the BBC reported. Kolomoisky’s portfolio includes banking, energy, and aviation.
The two men insist that their relationship is strictly professional and focused on TV work. Kolomoisky also said last year, according to Reuters: “I’m more his puppet than he is mine.”
Poroshenko has also accused Kolomoisky of being “motivated by a desire for revenge against the state,” and being the source of “rivers of shameless lies” against him, Reuters reported.
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