KIEV, Ukraine — Ukrainians went to the polls to elect a new president on Sunday amid widespread disappointment over what many see as a lack of tangible change in the country after a pro-Western revolution five years ago.
Thirty-nine candidates are listed on the ballot, but the race has narrowed to three main contenders: President Petro Poroshenko, who is seeking a second five-year term; Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister and political prisoner; and Volodymyr Zelensky, a popular comedian and political novice.
All three say they want to continue building closer ties to Western institutions such as the European Union. But the election is shining a spotlight on popular disdain for the political elite and the potential for continuing instability in one of Europe’s biggest and most geopolitically pivotal countries.
Polls show Zelensky, 41, to be the favorite going into Election Day. He’s largely led opinion polling since he announced his candidacy on his TV variety show on New Year’s Eve. Poroshenko and Tymoshenko appear to be battling for second place.
It’s highly unlikely that any candidate will win outright on Sunday, according to the polls. If no candidate takes more than half the vote, a runoff election will take place between the top two finishers on April 21.
The first exit polls are expected to be released when voting ends at 8 p.m. local time, or 1 p.m. in Washington.
Zelensky has burrowed into a deep vein of voter discontent over a sluggish economy, corruption and an unresolved war in the country’s east with Russian forces and Kremlin-backed rebels. Five years after the revolution, Russia continues to occupy the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, and the United Nations estimates that the war in the east has taken some 13,000 lives.
In a case of life imitating art — or in this case, Netflix — Zelensky’s only claim to presidential experience is that he plays a commander in chief in a popular television series, “Servant of the People.”
His character, Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko, is a simple but upright schoolteacher, who is unexpectedly catapulted to the presidency and tackles the country’s venal oligarch class.
Among Zelensky’s supporters, the series’ message resonates that honesty among politicians should trump all other considerations, and that he himself in real life is seen to be decent and corruption-free.
“I like that he built his business without any government connections,” Vitaly Kyrnik, 37, a railroad worker, said at a performance of Zelensky’s comedy troupe, Kvartal 95, in Kiev on Friday.
“He’s a new person, young, with new views,” Kyrnich added. “If he can successfully lead Kvartal 95, I think he might do okay as president.”
Poroshenko, 53, the owner of a confectionary company and one of the country’s richest men, has resurrected his electoral prospects after having polled in the single digits earlier in his campaign.
His campaign has doubled down on patriotic themes, like promotion of the Ukrainian language over Russian, support of the military and the creation of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
But he remains vulnerable to accusations that he failed to live up to the expectations of the country’s revolution five years ago, which deposed a Kremlin-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovych, and raised hopes that corruption and the power of powerful economic interests would finally be curtailed.
On Thursday, Poroshenko held a last campaign rally in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, where he accused Zelensky and Tymoshenko of being controlled by Ukrainian billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky.
“He has fled abroad, but he simultaneously moves two figures on the election chessboard,” Poroshenko said, referring to Kolomoisky, who currently lives in Israel.
Kolomoisky, Tymoshenko and Zelensky deny any political connections to one another.
Tymoshenko, 58, led in the polls at one point but her campaign has seemed to lose momentum in the last weeks. Some surveys place her even with Poroshenko.
Like Poroshenko she is viewed as a fixture in the country’s political and economic establishment. She earned a fortune in the country’s gas industry in the 1990s, served twice as prime minister and also previously twice ran for president. She was also jailed by her political rival Yanukovych in 2011 on charges widely seen as politically motivated.
Zelensky and Kvartal 95 held a final event in Kiev on Friday evening. The show is Zelensky’s version of a campaign rally, which he has performed across Ukraine the past month. As promised, he did not issue any overt political statements.
But Zelensky allowed himself a few campaign-worthy photo ops — like at one point singing an uplifting song with children called to the stage, while all flashed the victory sign. And he and his team managed to ridicule a host of politicians, including Poroshenko.
“Why does Poroshenko want a second term?” he asked, repeating a well-worn joke from earlier shows. “Because he doesn’t want a first [prison] term.”
Troianovski reported from Moscow.