A comedian with no political experience received the most votes in the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election, an exit poll projected Sunday night, with incumbent President Petro Poroshenko projected to place a distant second.
“This is only the first step toward a great victory,” Volodymyr Zelenskiy, 41, told reporters in Kiev after the polls closed.
Zelenskiy, the star of a TV sitcom about a teacher who became president after a video of him denouncing corruption went viral, led the field of 39 candidates with 30.4 percent of the vote, according to an exit poll by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology and the Razumkov public opinion organization. Poroshenko tallied with 17.8 percent support while former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko placed third 14.2 percent, it said.
Officials results will be expected Monday morning, but if the exit poll result holds, Zelenskiy and Poroshenko will square off in a runoff election April 21.
In a case of life imitating art, Zelenskiy made corruption a focus of his candidacy. He proposed a lifetime ban on holding public office for anyone convicted of graft. He also called for direct negotiations with Russia on ending the fighting in eastern Ukraine.
“A new life, a normal life is starting,” Zelenskiy said after he cast his ballot in Kiev. “A life without corruption, without bribes.”
The vote was shadowed by allegations of widespread vote buying. Police said they had received more than 1,600 complaints of violations on voting day alone in addition to hundreds of earlier voting fraud claims, including bribery attempts and removing ballots from polling places. Ukraine’s interior minister said his department was “showered” with hundreds of claims that supporters of Poroshenko and Tymoshenko had offered money in exchange for votes.
Zelenskiy’s lack of experience helped his popularity with voters amid broad disillusionment with the country’s political elite.
“Zelenskiy has shown us on the screen what a real president should be like,” said voter Tatiana Zinchenko, 30. “He showed what the state leader should aspire for — fight corruption by deeds, not words, help the poor, control the oligarchs.”
“(We have) no trust in old politicians. They were at the helm and the situation in the country has only gotten worse — corruption runs amok and the war is continuing,” said businessman Valery Ostrozhsky, 66, another Zelenskiy voter.
The 53-year-old Poroshenko, a onetime confectionary tycoon, pushed successfully for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to be recognized as self-standing rather than a branch of the Russian church.
However, he saw approval of his governing sink amid Ukraine’s economic woes and a sharp plunge in living standards. Poroshenko campaigned on promises to defeat the rebels in the east and to wrest back control of Crimea, which Russia took over in 2014 in a move that has drawn sanctions against Russia from the U.S. and the European Union.
A military embezzlement scheme that allegedly involved top Poroshenko associates, as well as a factory controlled by the president, dogged Poroshenko ahead of the election. Ultra-right activists shadowed him throughout the campaign, demanding the jailing of the president’s associates accused in the scheme.
On Sunday night, Poroshenko called his second-place finish sobering, telling a news conference: “I don’t feel any kind of euphoria. I critically and soberly understand the signal that society gave today to the acting authorities.”
Zelenskiy and Tymoshenko both used the alleged embezzlement to take hits at Poroshenko, who shot back at his rivals. He described them as puppets of a self-exiled billionaire businessman Igor Kolomoyskyi, charges that Zelenskiy and Tymoshenko denied.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.