Fed up with status quo, Ukrainians tipped to elect comedian as president
* Comedian plays fictitious president in TV series
* Appeals to voters fed up with corruption, status quo
* Poroshenko paints Zelenskiy as a clownish populist
* Graphic https://tmsnrt.rs/2EEQ22R
(Updates with start of voting, adds graphic, details)
By Matthias Williams
KIEV, April 21 (Reuters) - Ukrainians began voting on Sunday
in an election expected to thrust a comedian with no prior
political experience into the presidency of a country at war and
hungry for change.
At stake is the leadership of a country on the frontline of
the West's standoff with Russia following the 2014 Maidan street
protests and the annexation of Crimea.
Surveys make Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who plays a fictitious
president in a TV series, the overwhelming favourite to defeat
incumbent Petro Poroshenko, whose popularity has been dragged
down by patchy efforts to tackle corruption and sliding living
Both men - who traded insults and accusations in a rowdy
debate in a soccer stadium in Kiev on Friday - have pledged to
keep Ukraine on a pro-Western course.
But a victory for Zelenskiy in Sunday's second-round runoff
would nonetheless be a dramatic departure in a country where
previous presidential elections since independence were won by
experienced politicians including three former prime ministers.
Investors are seeking reassurances that whoever wins will
accelerate reforms needed to attract foreign investment and keep
the country in an International Monetary Fund programme that has
supported Ukraine through war, recession and a currency plunge.
Zelenskiy's unorthodox campaign relied heavily on quirky
social media posts and comedy gigs instead of traditional
rallies and leafletting.
He has also promised to fight corruption, a message that has
resonated with Ukrainians who are fed up with politics as usual
in a country of 42 million people that remains one of Europe's
poorest nearly three decades after winning independence from the
An opinion poll by the KIIS research firm on Tuesday showed
Zelenskiy with 72 percent of the vote and Poroshenko with 25
percent. Last week a different survey put them on 61 percent and
24 percent respectively.
NO CONFIDENCE IN GOVERNMENT
Zelenskiy's rise comes at a time of a political upheaval in
many parts of the world, from Brexit to the election of U.S.
President Donald Trump, the 5-Star Movement in Italy - also
inspired by a comedian - and the rise of the far right there, in
France and in Spain.
Just 9 percent of Ukrainians have confidence in their
national government, the lowest of any electorate in the world,
according to a Gallup poll published in March.
"I think the top election issue is frustration with the
status quo," said Mary O'Hagan, Ukraine Resident Senior Director
of the National Democratic Institute (NDI).
Poroshenko was elected amid high hopes for change after the
Maidan protests. O'Hagan says he inherited a difficult situation
in 2014 and implemented many reforms but has not convinced
voters that he is serious about tackling corruption.
"I think it is fair to say that public opinion has not
regarded the current set-up as a sufficient step forward from
what there was before, to justify the many sacrifices that
people have made following the revolution, in terms of living
standards, security, loss of life, displacement," she said.
Zelenskiy remains something of an unknown quantity and faces
scrutiny over his ties to a powerful oligarch who would like to
see Poroshenko out of power.
Poroshenko has sought to portray his opponent as a
buffoonish populist whose incompetence would leave Ukraine
vulnerable to Russia. Ukrainian troops have battled
Kremlin-backed separatist fighters since 2014 in a conflict in
the eastern Donbass region that has killed 13,000 people despite
a notional ceasefire.
Poroshenko secured visa-free travel for Ukrainians to
European Union countries. He implemented some reforms, helped
establish a national Orthodox Church independent from Moscow,
and successfully lobbied the West to keep sanctions on Russia.
But critics say the pace of change has not matched the
expectations of the protest movement. Poroshenko also did not
keep to a pledge to end the war in the east within weeks.
"I'm just an ordinary person who has come to break the
system. I'm the result of your mistakes and promises," Zelenskiy
said during the stadium debate.
Poroshenko has described his opponent as "giggling,
inexperienced, weak, ideologically amorphous". But he has struck
a contrite tone since the first round of the election,
apologising for mistakes and promising to be more transparent.
(Writing by Matthias Williams)
First Published: 2019-04-21 05:00:00
Updated 2019-04-21 08:42:52
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