KIEV, Ukraine — It’s a literal case of life imitating art: A comic actor who scored a ratings hit playing a pretend Ukrainian president on TV finds himself the real-life front-runner for president as voters prepare to head to the polls at the end of the month.
Political newcomer Volodymyr Zelenskiy has become a surprise star on the Ukrainian political stage with his anti-establishment and anti-corruption platform. In fact, in interviews, it’s hard to tell whether it is Mr. Zelenskiy the political candidate speaking or the hapless teacher turned surprise president that the comic actor plays on his hit television comedy, “Servant of the People.”
Reality or fantasy, his candidacy is resonating with restive voters in the lead-up to the presidential vote March 31, said Wojciech Kononczuk, head of the department for Ukraine at the Warsaw-based think tank Center for Eastern Studies.* Polls show Mr. Zelenskiy with a consistent lead over President Petro Poroshenko, one of Ukraine’s wealthiest men, and two-time former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a fixture on the troubled Ukrainian political scene since the Orange Revolution 15 years ago.
If no one secures a majority, then the top two finishers will head to a runoff on April 21.
In a political culture characterized by a tired cast of familiar characters and a failure to tackle deep-seated corruption, the unlikely front-runner is the ultimate fresh face.
“I think that many voters don’t believe in the real Mr. Zelenskiy, but in the image of him as an actor,” said Mr. Kononczuk. “He plays a humble and very honest history teacher who by accident is elected the next Ukrainian president. I think that many voters believe that it could be repeated in real life.”
For the past three years, Mr. Zelenskiy has starred in “Servant of the People” — which happens to be the name of his new political party — which features a teacher fighting the oligarchs and trying to fix the country’s problems.
The show — and the candidate — are appealing because many Ukrainians are fed up with the country’s oligarchs and elite, voters say.
“Why not him for president?” asked Olga Kulov, 27, of Kiev. “I don’t know if he will do well, but I want to give someone new a chance to try.”
Even though Mr. Zelenskiy has star appeal, Ukrainian political analysts caution that his political platform is vague and his statements on the grinding civil war with pro-Russian separatists in the east are naive. He has said he would tackle the stalemate in the east by sitting down with Russian President Vladimir Putin and “meeting him halfway.”
But the 41-year-old actor, director and screenwriter also displayed a wit that is rare among Ukraine’s political class. He said he would speak to the diminutive Mr. Putin “at eye level.”
He freely acknowledges his lack of policy depth but says his unorthodox campaign could attract new talent to the government in Kiev.
“If people believe in me and I want it myself, then maybe I can change something,” he told the Agence France-Presse news service in an interview this week. “At the very least, I can bring as many decent new people as possible into politics.”
But Mr. Zelensky has some financing questions of his own to answer.
His show is broadcast on Channel 1+1, owned by Ukrainian billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky, an oligarch who is known for his questionable tactics in taking over companies and who has been accused of theft.
Mr. Kolomoiskiy’s support of Mr. Zelenskiy’s campaign is unconfirmed, but his channel has featured heavy pro-Zelenskiy content in the run-up to the election. Pundits speculate that Mr. Kolomoiskiy is trying to retaliate against President Poroshenko for firing him as governor of the eastern Ukrainian province of Dnipropetrovsk.
“[Mr. Zelenskiy’s] ties to Ihor Kolomoiskiy, although they are denied by both sides, are very hard to completely ignore,” said Krasimir Yankov, Ukrainian regional researcher for Amnesty International. It is hard to imagine, he added, “that they will not play a role in the potential future presidency of Mr. Zelenskiy.”
Andrey Dikhtyarenko, editor of Realna Gazeta, one of Ukraine’s independent news outlets, said there is no mystery to Mr. Zelenskiy’s appeal to voters that has nothing to do with his reform plans or foreign policy agenda.
“I would say this is a protest vote,” he said. “People see that there is no worthy candidate, and they very much would want to throw a [wrench] in the higher echelons of politics and place at the top with a totally new figure. This new figure happens to be a comedian and actor, Zelenskiy.”
Whether Mr. Zelenskiy can deliver is one question, but polls suggest Ukraine and its political class are ripe for an overhaul.
Growth in gross domestic product has slowed in recent years, unemployment remains at almost 9 percent and per capita annual income is under $9,000. The World Bank forecasts that growth will slow this year if major reforms are not enacted.
Pressure from Russia continues to be unrelenting, with the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the support for separatists in the Donbass and the November seizure of three Ukrainian naval vessels and the detention of 24 Ukrainian sailors attempting to pass from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov through the Russian-controlled Kerch Strait.
Mr. Poroshenko came into power after the Maiden revolution five years ago and turned Ukraine decisively away from Russia and toward the West and Europe. But his tenure has been marked by disappointing progress on reforms and tackling corruption, analysts say.
Even so, he is the stalwart candidate for many in these unstable times. Many voters say he is the least bad choice and brings stability and experience with him, as well as solid support in Europe. Despite trailing in the polls, he is given a better chance if he and Mr. Zelenskiy go to a one-on-one runoff next month.
“I will be voting for Poroshenko. I will vote for a candidate who I am familiar with and someone who will continue on the democratic path rather than stray toward a totalitarian state,” said Irina Dovgan, 57, who fled eastern Ukraine for Kiev. “What I expect from Poroshenko, and the most important thing to me, is the country’s path toward NATO membership and the European Union.”
Ms. Tymoshenko, 58, has tried to use the election as vindication after a corruption case against her was later criticized as politically motivated, but she faces an uphill battle in an election where voters are craving a fresh face.
“She was highly influential in the past and would like to regain the power again, but not for the sake of fixing the country or to implement some reforms but rather for power as power,” Mr. Kononczuk said.
Polling analysts say it will be undecided voters — currently about 20 percent — who will determine the election.
Olga Ivanova, 35, from Kiev, who works at a charitable foundation, said a lot of people she knows are lost over how to vote.
“The problem is that there is no trust,” she said. “[It’s become about] who is more handsome, who is cool and who is not cool, and that’s very sad.”
Even so, it’s clear that the two establishment candidates — Ms. Tymoshenko and Mr. Poroshenko — are getting desperate.
“We see from their statements weeks before the crucial vote that they are [behaving as] complete populists,” said Amnesty International’s Mr. Yankov. “They will say whatever is needed, even if they contradict themselves, to get that extra percentage point.”
• Jabeen Bhatti contributed from Berlin. The affiliation for Mr. Kononczuk was incorrectly given in the original version of this story. It has been corrected.