Ukrainians voted on Sunday in a presidential election where a comedian who plays the president on television is expected to defeat the incumbent in a stunning rebuke to the establishment.
“We have united Ukraine,” the beaming frontrunner Volodymyr Zelensky, 41, said as he cast his ballot in the capital Kiev.
“Ukrainians will win today. Everything will be all right,” he said, wearing a casual suit with a t-shirt, and accompanied by his wife.
Zelensky’s bid to lead the country of 45 million people was dismissed as a joke when he announced his candidacy on New Year’s Eve.
But opinion polls suggest President Petro Poroshenko heading for a crushing defeat, with the comic projected to win 73 percent of the vote.
From Ukrainian-speaking regions in the west to Russian-speaking territories in the war-torn east, many voters said they were fed up with social injustice, corruption and war.
Polls opened across the country at 8:00 am local time (0500 GMT) and were due to close 12 hours later.
If he wins, Zelensky’s victory would open a new chapter in the history of a country that has gone through two popular uprisings in the last 20 years and is mired in a five-year conflict with Moscow-backed separatists in the east.
- ‘People have gone mad’ –
After he cast his ballot the star of sitcom “Servant of the People” congratulated Ukrainians celebrating Palm Sunday, a week before Orthodox Easter.
He addressed reporters in Ukrainian and Russian and said he listened to US rapper Eminem before voting to put himself in the right mood.
Poroshenko, who has argued Zelensky is unfit to be a wartime commander-in-chief, attended a church service with his wife before voting.
The 53-year-old came to power after a 2014 pro-Western uprising ousted a Kremlin-backed regime, triggering Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.
At the polling station, Poroshenko said he hoped Ukrainians would be guided by common sense.
“Because this is not funny. Well, at first it can be a bit funny and then it might hurt afterwards.”
“I think it just cannot get any worse and I hope he’ll live up to his promises,” the 18-year-old said.
Supporters of Zelensky say only a fresh face can clean up Ukraine’s politics and end the conflict with Russian-backed separatists that has claimed some 13,000 lives.
The comic has shunned traditional campaign rallies and instead performed comedy gigs and used social media to appeal to voters.
But some doubt the showman will be able to take on the country’s influential oligarchs, negotiate with the likes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and stand up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
- ‘So many fools’ –
“People have gone mad,” Viktoriya Olomutska, a 39-year-old Poroshenko supporter, said in Kiev. “Cinema and reality are two different things.”
Maria, 78, said she could not understand how Zelensky seemed to have so much support.
“There cannot be so many fools in the country,” she fumed. “But no, apparently there are!”
Analysts say Zelensky’s political programme is vague at best and it remains unclear who will fill key positions in his government.
Questions have also been raised over his links to controversial oligarch Igor Kolomoysky, whose TV channel broadcasts the entertainer’s shows.
The stakes are high for a country dependent on international aid and seen as a buffer between the European Union and Russia.
The Ukrainian president has strong powers over defence, security and foreign policy but needs backing from parliament to push through reforms.
Poroshenko’s faction has the most seats in the current legislature and new parliamentary polls are due in October.
Exit poll results are expected at 1700 GMT and the first preliminary results several hours later.
Categories: World News