- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 21, 2019

Ukrainians have overwhelmingly elected as president a comedian who portrays the role on television and denounces government corruption, according to exit polls on Sunday.

TV comedian-turned-politician Volodymyr Zelenskiy unseated incumbent President Petro Poroshenko by a landslide in Sunday’s runoff election. Exit polls showed that Mr. Zelenskiy had won about 73% of the vote, compared to Mr. Poroshenko’s 25%.

In his victory speech, Mr. Zelenskiy told his supporters, “I promise I will never let you down,” The Associated Press reported. “To all the countries of the former Soviet Union — look at us, everything is possible.”

Mr. Zelenskiy, a 41-year-old actor and screenwriter, stars in the TV sitcom “Servant of the People,” about a teacher seen in a viral video denouncing corruption who eventually becomes president.

The entertainer’s lack of political experience is widely believed to have fueled his popularity among voters frustrated with rampant corruption, endemic economic struggles and the country’s ongoing conflict with Russia in eastern Ukraine that has claimed 13,000 lives over the last five years.

“He’s going to find himself on a steep learning curve,” former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer told The Washington Times. “He’s got some skills how he translates those skills from his past career as an entertainer and as a candidate into actually running the government, it’s going to depend on the people around him.”

Mr. Pifer, who is currently a fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, said Mr. Zelenskiy’s win was essentially a protest vote against Mr. Poroshenko.

“He was seen as a new face with a new approach. He wasn’t seen as having any attachments to sort of the old political elite,” the former ambassador said. “And he ran a really interesting campaign.”

Mr. Poroshenko, who took office in 2014 just months after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, has struggled in office with the destabilization of the eastern part of Ukraine by Russian-backed separatists.

The 53-year-old politician campaigned on the promise to win back control of Crimea and defeat the Russian-backed rebels. But his approval ratings have taken a hit as the country’s economy has underperformed.

The incumbent also had been dogged by allegations of corruption in his campaign and by the fallout from a defense procurement scandal, according to the BBC.

Throughout the election, Mr. Poroshenko touted negotiations with the European Union for visa-free travel for Ukrainians and separating the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from Russian control.

Mr. Pifer attributed the lack of action to combat corruption and a weak economy to the incumbent’s loss.

“Going into Ukraine two years ago, you could already see the frustration among the electorate building on this issue to the extent that Poroshenko made a mistake, he didn’t recognize that and try to deal with those issues sooner,” he said.

While the country’s economy grew about 3% last year, Mr. Pifer said an economy such as Ukraine’s should be growing 5% to 6% per year.

Mr. Poroshenko is not walking away without notable successes, according to Mr. Pifer, who said he deserves credit for “really impressive reforms” and dealing with Russian aggression.

These successes could pose a challenge to the president-elect, who faces skepticism about how he will handle Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“He’s a political neophyte,” Mr. Pifer said. “How does he avoid being shark chum when he sits down to meet with Putin?”

Mr. Zelenskiy campaigned on promises to stand up to aggression and implement policies to isolate Russia by encouraging Ukraine to join NATO and the European Union.

“I don’t say Zelenskiy will disappoint Russia. I think he could well disappoint the Russians, but, you know, it remains to be seen,” Mr. Pifer said.

Although the official results of the election have yet to be released, Mr. Poroshenko accepted the outcome of the election late Sunday.

“I am leaving office, but I want to firmly underline that I am not leaving politics,” Mr. Poroshenko told his supporters.

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