A Jewish comedian with no political experience raced ahead in the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election.
Exit polls and early counting put 41-year-old Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who plays a fictional president in a popular local TV series, comfortably ahead of incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, though short of a majority.
Though criticised for being an unknown quantity and light on policy detail, Zelenskiy’s emergence is a powerful challenge to the veteran politician Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who trailed in third place.
No candidate is expected to receive more than half the votes, meaning the election would go to a runoff on April 21.
“I would like to say ‘thank you’ to all the Ukrainians who did not vote just for fun,” Zelenskiy told cheering supporters on Sunday evening. “It is only the beginning, we will not relax.”
In keeping with the relaxed style of his campaign, Zelenskiy’s election night venue provided a bar with free alcohol, table football and table tennis games.
Poroshenko called the result a “severe lesson”, especially from younger voters and appealed for their support in the second round.
“You see changes in the country, but want them to be quicker, deeper and of higher quality. I have understood the motives behind your protest,” he said.
Zelenskiy secured 30.6 percent of votes, compared with Poroshenko’s 17.8 percent, according to an updated exit poll released at 11pm, three hours after voting closed.
His campaign has relied heavily on social media and comedy gigs of jokes, sketches and song-and-dance routines that poke fun at his political rivals.
“This is a battle to change the country, to change the political system. It has completely discredited itself and is not supported by Ukraine’s citizens or by its Western partners,” Zelenskiy’s political consultant, Dmitry Razumkov, told Reuters. “After five years of fighting corruption, we have returned to where we started.”
Zelenskiy’s campaign blurred the line between reality and the TV series in which he plays a scrupulously honest history teacher who accidentally becomes president.
In series three, which began airing in March, his character is flung into prison and the country falls under the control of oligarchs, populists and ultra-nationalists, and eventually gets broken up into 28 states. Thinly disguised characters resembling Poroshenko and Tymoshenko come to power.
“He embodies the perceived need for ‘new faces’ in politics and could sway the young, pro-reform electorate to his side,” said Economist Intelligence Unit analyst Agnese Ortolani.