- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 31, 2019

Tens of thousands of Ukrainian voters flooded the polls Sunday to advance a television comedian-turned-politician to a runoff with President Petro Poroshenko.

Drawing more than 30 percent of the vote in a field of 39 candidates, including the incumbent, comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy fell short of winning the presidency outright, but easily topped Mr. Poroshenko, at 17 percent.

Mr. Zelenskiy, a 41-year-old actor and screenwriter, stars in the television show ‘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.

Mr. Poroshenko, who took office in 2014, just months after Russia illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula, has struggled in office with the destabilization of the eastern part of Ukraine by Russian-backed separatists. The incumbent also has been dogged by allegations of corruption in his campaign and by the fallout from a defense procurement scandal, according to the BBC.

Mr. Zelenskiy recycled a central element of his fictional television character’s political campaign in his real-life presidential run by promising to clean up corruption.

He’s called for legislation to ban from office those convicted of misdirecting funds intended for public use to benefit private interests, and he’s proposed direct negotiations with Russia to end the dispute.

“A new life, a normal life is starting, Mr. Zelenskiy said after he cast his ballot in the capital city of Kiev, according to the Associated Press. “A life without corruption, without bribes.”

Allegations of vote-buying cast a shadow over the election, as police reported they received almost 2,000 complaints of voting violations, including bribery attempts and taking ballots from polling stations “related to the electoral process.”

The government said it had received hundreds of reports that supporters of two top candidates, including Mr. Poroshenko, offered money for votes.

Ukraine’s interior ministry said the police opened 25 criminal proceedings on “infringement of electoral legislation.” As polling stations opened Sunday, the interior ministry warned voters on Twitter “please do not violate the electoral law, do not photograph the ballots, do not try to make them outside the polling station.”

“Free and democratic elections are a test of our European culture, our relevance to European political culture and the European Union’s civilization standards,” Mr. Poroshenko tweeted Sunday.

Throughout the election, the president has touted negotiations with the European Union for visa-free travel for Ukrainians and separating the Ukranian Orthodox Church from Russian control. Mr. Poroshenko, 53, has campaigned on the promise to win back control of Crimea and defeat the Russian-backed rebels.

However, his approval ratings have taken a hit as the country’s economy has underperformed.

Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who came in third according to exit polls, is disputing the results that would leave her out of the runoff.

After serving as prime minister, Ms. Tymoshenko ran for president twice before her latest campaign.

The Ukranian election received praise from around the world including from Cindy McCain, wife of late U.S. Sen. John McCain, who called her husband an “ardent supporter of the Ukrainian people and their stand for freedom.”

“I believe that today’s vote will be a great example of democracy and how the country chooses its destiny,” she said Sunday.

The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee congratulated the democratic election, and tweeted “Free and fair elections are the most important part of any democracy.”

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst told The Washington Times that “while it is still early to call the election, it now looks like Zelenskiy and a Poroshenko make it to Round 2.”

“Zelenskiy’s strong showing reflects voter unhappiness with the state of reform and the standard of living. But that is no guarantee of winning Round 2,” Amb. Herbst added. “His inexperience and Poroshenko’s record as a war leader should make it a contest.”

The runoff is set April 21.

• Lauren Toms can be reached at lmeier@washingtontimes.com.

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