Ukraine entered uncharted political waters yesterday after an exit poll showed that a comedian with no political experience and few detailed policies had easily won enough votes to become the next president of a country at war.
The apparent landslide victory of Volodymyr Zelenskiy, 41, is a bitter blow for incumbent Petro Poroshenko who tried to rally Ukrainians around the flag by casting himself as a bulwark against Russian aggression and a champion of Ukrainian identity.
The national exit poll showed Zelenskiy had won 73% of the vote with Poroshenko winning just 25%.
Poroshenko lost to the television star across all regions of the country, including in the west where he traditionally enjoyed strong support.
It was an extraordinary outcome to a campaign that started as a joke but struck a chord with voters frustrated by poverty, corruption and a five-year war that has claimed some 13,000 lives.
The star of TV series Servant of the People will now take the helm of a country of 45mn people beset by challenges and having run on the vaguest of political platforms.
If the poll is right, Zelenskiy will now take over the leadership of a country on the frontline of the West’s stand-off with Russia following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and support for a pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine.
Declaring victory at his campaign headquarters to emotional supporters, Zelenskiy promised that he would not let the Ukrainian people down. “I’m not yet officially the president, but as a citizen of Ukraine I can say to all countries in the post-Soviet Union look at us. Anything is possible!”
Zelenskiy, whose victory fits a pattern of anti-establishment figures unseating incumbents in Europe and further afield, has promised to end the war in the eastern Donbass region and to root out corruption amid widespread dismay over rising prices and falling living standards.
However, he has been coy about exactly how he plans to achieve all that and investors want reassurances that he will accelerate reforms needed to attract foreign investment and keep the country in an International Monetary Fund (IMF) programme.
“Since there is complete uncertainty about the economic policy of the person who will become president, we simply don’t know what is going to happen and that worries the financial community,” said Serhiy Fursa, an investment banker at Dragon Capital in Kyiv. “We need to see what the first decisions are, the first appointments. We probably won’t understand how big these risks are earlier than June. Perhaps nothing will change.”
The United States, the European Union and Russia will be closely watching Zelenskiy’s foreign policy pronouncements to see if and how he might try to end the war against pro-Russian separatists that has killed some 13,000 people.
Viktor Medvedchuk, the Kremlin’s closest ally in Ukraine, last week outlined ways in which Ukraine and Russia could mend ties, though Zelenskiy has given no indication of being open to the prospect.
Grigory Karasin, a deputy Russian foreign minister, said that the exit poll showed Ukrainians had voted for change, including in their foreign policy, the RIA news agency reported.
An emotional Poroshenko conceded defeat to his supporters, some of whom were crying.
Although he said that he accepted the loss, he said he would not be leaving politics and that Zelenskiy would face strong opposition.
Zelenskiy has pledged to keep Ukraine on a pro-Western course, but has sounded less emphatic than Poroshenko about possible plans for the country to one day join the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato).
Poroshenko said on social media that he thought Zelenskiy’s win would spark celebrations in the Kremlin.
“They believe that with a new inexperienced Ukrainian president, Ukraine could be quickly returned to Russia’s orbit of influence,” he wrote.
Critics accuse Zelenskiy of having an unhealthily close working relationship with a powerful oligarch called Ihor Kolomoisky, whose TV channel broadcasts his comedy shows.
Zelenskiy has rejected those accusations.
One of the most important and early tests of that promise will be the fate of PrivatBank, Ukraine’s largest lender, which was nationalised in 2016.
The government wrested PrivatBank from Kolomoisky, the bank’s co-founder, as part of a banking system clean-up backed by the IMF, which supports Ukraine with a $3.9bn loan programme.
But its fate hangs in the balance after a Kyiv court ruled days before the election that the change of PrivatBank’s ownership was illegal, delighting Kolomoisky but rocking the central bank which said it would appeal.
Zelenskiy has repeatedly denied that he would seek to hand PrivatBank back to Kolomoisky if elected or help the businessman win compensation for the ownership change.
The IMF will be watching closely too to see if Zelenskiy will allow gas prices to rise to market levels, a crucial IMF demand but a politically sensitive issue and one Zelenskiy has been vague about.
Zelenskiy’s unorthodox campaign traded on the character he plays in the TV show, a scrupulously honest schoolteacher who becomes president by accident after an expletive-ridden rant about corruption goes viral.
Zelenskiy has promised to fight corruption, a message that has resonated with Ukrainians fed up with the status quo in a country that is one of Europe’s poorest nearly three decades after breaking away from the Soviet Union.
After taking the most votes in last month’s first-round election, Zelenskiy had enjoyed a strong lead over the 53-year-old Poroshenko going into yesterday’s poll.
Voting earlier in the capital Kyiv, the beaming frontrunner had said that his campaign managed to bring Ukrainians together.
“We have united Ukraine,” he said, wearing a casual suit with a t-shirt and accompanied by his wife. “Everything will be all right.”
From Ukrainian-speaking regions in the west of the country to Russian-speaking territories in the war-torn east, many voters said they feared uncertainty but yearned for change.
“We’re tired of all the lies,” said Marta Semenyuk, 26, who cast her ballot for the comedian.
“I think it just cannot get any worse and I hope he’ll live up to his promises,” said Larisa, an 18-year-old student from the government-held eastern port city of Mariupol.
His supporters say only a fresh face can clean up politics and end the separatist conflict.
However, others doubt the showman will be able to take on the country’s influential oligarchs, negotiate with the likes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and stand up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
“People have gone mad,” Viktoriya Olomutska, a 39-year-old Poroshenko supporter, said in Kyiv. “Cinema and reality are two different things.”
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