KIEV, Ukraine (AFP) — Volodymyr Zelensky has already been elected president of Ukraine — in the popular TV show “Servant of the People,” the third season of which began airing last week.
His rise is strikingly similar to that of his character in the hit series.
The 41-year-old comedian’s real presidential bid started out as a long shot but, on the back of popular discontent with the political class, he has leapt to pole position.
Zelensky’s critics brand him a puppet of powerful rivals to Ukraine’s current president, Petro Poroshenko.
After taking a strong lead in a first-round vote he will face the incumbent in a run-off on April 21.
In the TV show, a school history teacher is elected leader after a video rant against corruption goes viral.
While supporters see the real-life Zelensky as a breath of fresh air, critics say his manifesto is vague and that a country at war should not be taking a chance on a political novice.
The entertainer, who has earned comparisons to US actor-turned-president Ronald Reagan, shuns campaign rallies in favor of comedy gigs.
He prefers to get his message across through videos on social media rather than press interviews.
“For him personally, this is an interesting life experience, something he hasn’t done before,” Ukrainian political analyst Mykola Davydyuk said of Zelensky’s approach to the campaign.
“I’m not ruling out that he does have some burning desire to be president but, most likely, he’s unconsciously acting out the role he’s played on the screen,” Davydyuk told AFP.
“And there is a section of the population who believe him and are willing to vote for him.”
‘It wasn’t a joke’
In his comedy shows, which continued up to the very last day of the campaign going into the first round, the line between candidate and showman has been blurred.
At a recent gig in the outskirts of Kiev, he took aim at Poroshenko — despite stressing the performance was not a campaign event.
“Why is Poroshenko going for a second term? So that he doesn’t get a first,” Zelensky said, with the implication of a jail term for a leader who has been accused of corruption.
“That’s not funny,” his on-stage partner replied.
“Well, it wasn’t a joke,” Zelensky said.
Zelensky has been accused of being a “puppet” for Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoysky, but he denies any political connection.
Kolomoysky, one of Ukraine’s richest and most controversial figures, became a regional governor at the start of Poroshenko’s term but was forced to resign following a row over a state oil firm. He now lives in Israel.
At various points in the campaign Poroshenko has referred to a “fugitive oligarch” trying to influence the vote from abroad.
Zelensky, a father of two, comes from the industrial city of Krivy Rig in central Ukraine.
He has a law degree but made his career on the stage, later turning his Kvartal 95 comedy troupe into big business. The group has toured in Russia and he has performed in Russian films.
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.
An investigative report on Ukrainian television in January accused Zelensky of continuing commercial relations with Russia, a highly sensitive topic as tensions flare between the neighbors.
Following the TV report, Zelensky confirmed he had shares in a Cypriot company that owns a Russian group and promised to sell them.
If elected, Zelensky has promised to move forward with the implementation of the Minsk peace process designed to end the war with Russia-backed separatists in the east of the country.
In an interview from 2014, when he was known just as a performer, Zelensky said he would “go down on his knees” to beg Russian President Vladimir Putin not to instigate a military conflict against Ukraine.
But on Sunday he said that if he were to meet Putin now he would demand Russia end its occupation of territory in eastern Ukraine and pay compensation.
Elsewhere, Zelensky has said he would keep Ukraine on the pro-Western course it has charted under Poroshenko.