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25th Feb 2024

TV comic wins first round of election in jaded Ukraine

  • The incumbent president, Petro Poroshenko (centre), won just 18 percent in the first round (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

A Ukrainian comic has won the first round of presidential elections in a country jaded by never-ending corruption allegations and five years of Russian warfare.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a 41-year old TV personality, won just over 30 percent of the vote on Sunday (31 March), exit polls showed.

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  • Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a 41-year old TV comedian, won just over 30 percent (Photo: Wikimedia)

The incumbent president, Petro Poroshenko, won 18 percent, and a former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, won 14 percent.

"I would like to say 'thank you' to all the Ukrainians who did not vote just for fun ... It is only the beginning, we will not relax," Zelenskiy said after the results came out.

His campaign had earlier seen him support EU integration and promise to try to end Russia's war in east Ukraine, but it was based more on jokes and sketches about his rivals than on concrete ideas on how to move forward.

It also had strong backing from Igor Kolomoisky, a Ukrainian oligarch who lives in Israel and whose popular 1+1 TV channel had propelled Zelenskiy to fame and promoted his candidacy.

He is now set to face Poroshenko in a run-off in three weeks' time.

Poroshenko's bid was harmed by recent corruption allegations relating to defence procurement.

He had centred his campaign on the fact the Ukrainian orthodox church had won independence from Russia on his watch. He hd also appealed to conservative voters with the slogan "Army, Language, Faith".

But he seemed ready to contest the run-off on grounds that Zelenskiy would be easy for Russia to manipulate.

Russia "dreams of a soft, pliant, tender, giggling, inexperienced, weak, ideologically amorphous and politically undecided president of Ukraine. Are we really going to give him [Vladimir Putin] that opportunity?" Poroshenko said at the weekend, the Reuters news agency reported.

Poroshenko also called his rival "Kolomoisky's puppet".

But the incumbent president also admitted that his defeat was a "severe lesson", especially by younger voters.

"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.

The anti-establishment victory comes after 39 candidates, all of whom had avowed pro-EU views, took the field.

The third-place winner, Tymoshenko, said at her press conference that she had evidence of fraud and might contest the outcome, but this was not borne out by independent reports or by initial comments from Western observers.

The elections took place five years after the Euromaidan revolution saw Ukrainians oust their pro-Russian government and Russia invade its neighbour in a war that has already claimed 13,000 lives.

They also took place in a climate of weariness with the Ukrainian elite.

Just nine percent of Ukrainians had confidence in their government, according to a Gallup poll in March - the lowest level reported in the world.

Ten percent of people also voted for Yuriy Boyko, who used to work for the ousted pro-Russian regime, in a sign a further voter dislike for the post-revolutionary rulers.

"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," Dmitry Razumkov, Zelenskiy's political consultant, told Reuters.

"After five years of fighting corruption, we have returned to where we started," he said.

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