KIEV, Ukraine — Ukrainians cast their ballots Sunday in a runoff presidential election that appeared likely to turn comedian Volodymyr Zelensky into this country’s commander in chief.
The 41-year-old Zelensky held a commanding lead in the polls going into Election Day, even though his political experience amounts to playing the Ukrainian president on a popular sitcom. But amid a continuing war in eastern Ukraine, economic travails and intense disdain for the country’s ruling class, many voters are prepared to reward the popular entertainer with the highest office in the land.
“I voted for Zelensky because everything he said is true,” a secretary in Kiev, 45-year-old Viktoriia Bengalska, said. “It’s impossible to survive on this salary, prices have increased like crazy, and we were promised something totally different.”
Zelensky’s victory would be the latest in a global trend of political outsiders harnessing TV and social media to outmuscle the unpopular establishment. It would also reverberate in Russia and elsewhere across the former Soviet Union, where few other countries can claim a democratic system that would allow a comedian to unseat the sitting president. And it would instantly create new uncertainty over Ukraine’s strategy in its conflict with Russian President Vladimir Putin — whom Zelensky has promised to negotiate with while not detailing how.
Zelensky’s opponent is the incumbent Petro Poroshenko, whose confectionery business makes him one of the country’s richest men. He took office in 2014 in the wake of Ukraine’s pro-Western revolution. He built his campaign around the theme of independence from neighboring Russia — strengthening the military, promoting the Ukrainian language over Russian, and forming a Ukrainian Orthodox Church separate from Moscow. His slogan: “Army! Language! Faith!”
In his last-ditch appeal, Poroshenko told voters that handing the presidency to Zelensky would put the very existence of the country at risk. Zelensky’s slick, social media and TV-driven campaign masked the influence of the Kremlin and of unscrupulous billionaires, Poroshenko alleged.
“This is a bright candy wrapper,” Poroshenko said in a debate in Kiev’s Olympic Stadium Friday, referring to Zelensky. “There are Russians inside, and fugitive oligarchs.”
On Sunday, at the end of an emotional and divisive campaign, some voters seemed to buy Poroshenko’s argument. At a polling station set up at a Kiev public school, Inna Dzhurynska, 52, pointed at her traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt when asked whom she was voting for.
“Who do you think I will vote for?” Dzhurynska said. “We’ll lose Ukraine with Zelensky,” she added, and broke into tears.
Zelensky, who projects a youthful and liberal aura, has pledged to keep Ukraine on its pro-Western course. But he’s tried to sound a more unifying message than Poroshenko, insisting, for example, that Russian-language television should remain available to meet the interests of Ukraine’s Russian speakers. He’s promised to crowdsource his decisions on everything from specific policies to the appointment of the head of the security service.
During his campaign, Zelensky largely eschewed traditional advertising and unscripted interactions with journalists. Instead, the entertainer relied on social media and his television shows to reach voters.
On his sitcom, Zelensky plays a simple, morally upright schoolteacher who is elected president after his rant of outrage over corruption is caught on camera and goes viral. He then takes on Ukraine’s entrenched business and political elites, refusing to be bought. The third season of Zelensky’s show, “Servant of the People,” started airing last month and includes scenes of a prosperous, corruption-free Ukraine in the aftermath of the Zelensky character’s presidency.
“I’m not a politician,” Zelensky said in Friday’s debate against Poroshenko, channeling his character in his show. “I’m just a simple person who came to break the system.”
To be sure, Zelensky real-life political rise isn’t quite the Cinderella story told in his sitcom. The long-popular entertainer has benefited from his business partnership with Ukrainian billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky, who controls the television channel that airs Zelensky’s shows and gave largely positive coverage to his candidacy. Both men deny that Kolomoisky is behind Zelensky’s political ambitions.
Zelensky’s most powerful advantage in the runoff may be simply that he is not Poroshenko. A recent poll by Rating, a Ukrainian polling firm, showed Zelensky leading Poroshenko 58 percent to 22 percent among those planning to cast a ballot, with 20 percent undecided. Other surveys have shown Zelensky leading with a similar margin.
Many voters blame the incumbent for failing to end the war against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine and for allowing corruption to fester at the highest levels of government. Poroshenko counters that it’s Russia’s fault that the war in the east lingers — it has claimed some 13,000 lives, the United Nations says — and that he is doing what’s possible to reform governance in Ukraine.
Poroshenko “could have made it into history, but he was only protecting his interests and not the state’s,” said Valentyn Rudenko, 70, a pensioner and Zelensky voter in Kiev. “I just don’t want Poroshenko to be a president.”
On the popular messaging app Telegram, Zelensky’s campaign distributed an image for supporters of the candidate holding two automatic guns. It’s a frame from a graphic dream sequence in “Servant of the People” in which Zelensky’s presidential character comes to parliament, grabs his bodyguard’s weapons, and massacres the lawmakers in front of him.
“End of the old era,” the text under the image says.
Oksana Parafeniuk in Kiev, Ukraine, contributed reporting.