KIEV | Results in Ukraine’s first round of presidential balloting yielded no surprise with TV actor and comedian Viktor Zelenskiy placing first with 30 percent of the vote. Instead, the surprise was his margin over the sitting president, Petro Poroshenko, who received about 16 percent. Ukraine’s constitution requires a winner receive more than 50 percent of all ballots cast, so these two candidates will be the only contenders in a final vote on April 21. Mr. Zelenskiy is favored to win election to the five-year term.
At 41, Mr. Zelenskiy is 12 years younger than Mr. Poroshenko and has no political experience. What he does have is what every politician wants: extensive name recognition. His popularity as a national TV personality, which is still where many Ukrainians get both their news and entertainment, has given him a significant margin — particularly among the youngest segment of the electorate.
In the category of “you cannot make this up,” Mr. Zelenskiy’s most recent TV role has been in a sitcom titled “Servant of the People,” where he plays the part of a man who accidentally becomes the president of Ukraine. It is part of the appeal that had almost one-third of the country’s voters selecting him out of a field of 39 candidates.
Mr. Poroshenko came to office in a snap election in March 2014, after the previous president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled the country during the Maidan Revolution. There were initially hopeful expectations. He was a successful businessman, he had served in more than one of the previous Ukrainian governments — including stints as foreign minister, minister for trade and economic development, and head of the National Security and Defense Council — and was a known entity to EU and U.S. politicians.
But, with the 2014 invasion and occupation of Crimea by Russia and the subsequent onset of a Moscow-backed separatist war in the eastern Donbass region, the public began to question why Mr. Poroshenko would not divest himself of his business interests in Russia. He has made several unspecified promises of an imminent dramatic announcement of these assets being sold off, but neither the announcement nor these steps toward divesting himself of these enterprises have ever materialized.
Last September, the president said, “I had business in Russia before the war. But the war changed everything. And now I want everyone to hear that Poroshenko has no business in Russia, it is out of question.” However, his critics claim that he continues to maintain numerous business ties to Russia through a spider-web type conglomerate of various interconnected companies and off-shore arrangements.
One of the outlets for some of the president’s strongest critics, and the same channel in which Mr. Zelenskiy appears as a comedy star, has been the 1+1 TV channel. The station is majority-owned by companies connected to Igor Kolomoyskiy, a powerful oligarch who has been de facto exiled to Israel by Mr. Poroshenko. The businessman and president are bitter rivals, which has caused this election to be characterized as the “battle of two oligarchs” — Mr. Poroshenko, and Mr. Kolomoyskiy using Mr. Zelenskiy as his proxy.
The three-week period of campaigning leading up to the run-off has already begun in such a manner that almost excludes the possibility of the contest being in any way gentlemanly or judicious.
Mikhail Fyodorov, who is the head of Mr. Zelenskiy’s digital strategy, told the press, “I am going to destroy him [Poroshenko]. He’s a marauder.” Much of Mr. Zelenskiy’s support among youth can be credited to his campaign’s use of Internet-based channels and clever image-making. Mr. Poroshenko shot back, declaring that “fate has pitted me against Kolomoysky’s puppet.”
Mr. Poroshenko had promised that if re-elected, he would secure Ukraine’s membership in NATO, that the country would take back the occupied regions of Crimea and the Donbass, and that corruption would be eliminated. His supporters warn that an inexperienced personality like Mr. Zelenskiy becoming president jeopardizes the credibility of Ukraine’s political institutions and could eliminate the possibilities for membership in NATO. Conducting a war against Russia is another task that they question the TV comic’s capability to carry out.
But Mr. Poroshenko’s critics state that the corrupt administration over which he has presided make these objectives problematic at best. Eliminating the corruption which still plagues the country five years after a revolution to end corruption, they continue, requires a wholesale house-cleaning of the main governmental and presidential administrative apparatus.
Charges of corrupt arrangements against Mr. Poroshenko’s allies involving pocketing of large chunks of the defense budget have been partially responsible for Mr. Zelenskiy receiving the strongest support in those Eastern regions of the country that have been invaded. Moscow-backed proxy forces are being aided by Russian “contract soldier” special forces troops — and the public at large in general and the population in those regions in particular are tiring of the conflict. They are also resentful of what they see as an on-going five-year war that seems to be more about profiteering from the conflict than bringing it to an end.
Mr. Zelenskiy will have to mobilize enough supporters in all regions of the country in order to be able to overcome a far-more entrenched network nationwide that supports the incumbent. If elected, the next hurdle will be forming a government that does not just end up with the usual suspects to the posts of prime minister and other senior posts. It is Mr. Zelenskiy’s unknown quality and simply the fact that he is different that has made him popular.
“Every Ukrainian has his own idea of who Zelenskiy is,” said one Ukrainian political commentator. That very asset that has propelled him to a spot where he is one step away from being the next president could disappear quickly if he ends up being defined as the same type of politician that Ukrainians are so unsatisfied with — and for now are hoping he is not.
• Reuben F. Johnson is a defense and foreign affairs correspondent based in Kiev.