A comedian whose political experience is limited to playing the president on TV is likely to top the first round of voting when Ukrainians go to the polls on Sunday.
Actor Volodymyr Zelensky’s bid started as a long shot but he has leapfrogged establishment politicians amid public frustration over corruption and stagnating living standards.
The 41-year-old star of the political comedy “Servant of the People,” which returned for its third season this week, is polling above 25 percent, well ahead of his nearest rivals. He is believed to be Jewish, though Jewish community officials in the country are divided on the question and he has declined to comment on his religious identity during the campaign.
If Zelensky wins the presidency he will lead a country of 45 million people that in recent years has known war, loss of territory and uprisings, and remains one of the poorest nations in Europe.
The main question now is whether incumbent Petro Poroshenko or ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko will meet Zelensky in a run-off next month.
One recent survey put them neck and neck at around 17%, though another showed Poroshenko pulling ahead of ally-turned-foe Tymoshenko to make the second round.
Zelensky, who has a young support base, acknowledges that he has “no experience” but nonetheless insists he has the strength to lead Ukraine.
“I don’t have all the knowledge but I’m learning this now,” he told AFP in an interview this month.
“I don’t want to look like an idiot.”
Even in the final days of campaigning he has eschewed rallies and interviews in favor of playing gigs with his comedy troupe.
Critics point to the vagueness of his manifesto, the key pledges of which were chosen following a public vote on social media.
But supporters say only a brand new face can clean up Ukraine’s murky politics.
Some, including Poroshenko, have accused Zelensky of acting as a front for the interests of the owner of the channel that broadcasts the entertainer’s shows, prominent Ukrainian-Jewish businessman Igor Kolomoysky, who also holds Israeli and Cypriot citizenship. Zelensky denies any political links.
Standing up to Russia
Poroshenko was elected president in 2014 after a revolution forced Kremlin-backed predecessor Viktor Yanukovych from office.
The pro-Western uprising was followed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and a conflict in eastern Ukraine between Kiev’s forces and Moscow-backed separatists.
Poroshenko came in on promises to tackle graft, align Ukraine with the West and shut down the fighting in the east.
But five years on, corruption is widespread and the simmering separatist conflict has cost 13,000 lives.
“I am absolutely confident that despite all of Russia’s attempts… the Kremlin will not block the European or Euro-Atlantic integration of my country,” Poroshenko said after his final campaign rally.
The 53-year-old president has positioned himself as the only person able to stand up to the Kremlin and has promised to return Crimea to Ukraine if he is reelected.
The pledge has been widely dismissed as unrealistic.
Record number of candidates
Tymoshenko — who was once known for her traditional plaited hairstyle but now opts for a more conventional pony tail — has focused on the cost of living.
She has promised to cut consumer gas prices in half and boost pensions as she appeals to an older base during her third bid for the presidency.
With a record 39 candidates on the first-round ballot, analysts say the race remains open despite Zelensky’s dominance in the polls.
Barring a shock result in which one candidate crosses the 50% threshold in the first round, a two-person run-off is to be held on April 21.