Funny man vs chocolate baron: Ukraine's presidential choice

Theo MERZ
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Polls show comedian Volodymyr Zelensky (R) handily defeating President Petro Poroshenko in a second-round of voting on Sunday

Polls show comedian Volodymyr Zelensky (R) handily defeating President Petro Poroshenko in a second-round of voting on Sunday (AFP Photo/Kayhan OZER, Sergei SUPINSKY)

Kiev (AFP) - In three weeks Ukrainians will face a choice between comedian Volodymyr Zelensky and incumbent Petro Poroshenko, who made his fortune in chocolate, for their next leader.

Zelensky is the favourite going into the runoff, after exit polls showed him winning more than 30 percent of the vote in the first round, compared to Poroshenko's roughly 18 percent.

Here are short profiles of the two men remaining from an early field of almost 40:

- Zelensky: no joke -

Zelensky has already been elected president of Ukraine -- in the popular TV show "Servant of the People", the third series of which began airing this week.

The 41-year-old comedian's real presidential bid started out as a long shot but, on the back of popular discontent with the political class, he has leapt to pole position.

But while supporters see him as a breath of fresh air, critics say his manifesto is vague and that a country at war should not be taking a chance on a political novice.

He has been accused of being a "puppet" for controversial Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoysky, but he denies any political connection.

Zelensky, who has earned comparisons to US actor-turned-president Ronald Reagan, shuns campaign rallies in favour of comedy gigs. He prefers to get his message across through videos on social media rather than press interviews.

The father-of-two comes from the industrial city of Krivy Rig in central Ukraine. He has a law degree but made his career on the stage.

An investigative report on Ukrainian television in January accused Zelensky of commercial relations with Russia, a highly sensitive topic as tensions flare between the neighbours.

Following the TV report, Zelensky confirmed he had shares in a Cypriot company that is owned by a Russian group and promised to sell them.

If elected, Zelensky has promised to move forward with the implementation of the Minsk peace process designed to end the war with pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country.

But some observers question whether he will be able to stand up to Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Elsewhere, Zelensky has said he would keep Ukraine on the pro-Western course it has charted under Poroshenko.

- Poroshenko: sweets success -

Poroshenko was elected president of Ukraine in 2014 after a pro-Western anti-corruption uprising ousted his predecessor Viktor Yanukovych from office.

The businessman, who amassed a vast fortune selling his own brand of chocolates, made closer ties with the West the central mission of his first term.

But detractors say the 53-year-old has done too little to tackle graft or to improve living standards.

The father of four was born in the small southwestern town of Bolgrad and studied economics at Kiev State University.

He entered politics as a lawmaker in 1998 and was one of the founders of Yanukovych's Regions Party in 2000.

Four years later, he changed sides after an election widely seen as rigged by Yanukovych.

Poroshenko joined forces with his close friend Viktor Yushchenko, who helped lead the 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution, taking a place in government when Yushchenko became president.

But he had a notorious falling out with the then prime minister and the pair were both sacked.

Poroshenko was mentioned in the 2016 Panama papers leak, which revealed his use of offshore accounts.

A report last year by a Ukrainian investigative TV show said Poroshenko and his family enjoyed a $500,000 holiday on a private island in the Maldives, a revelation that prompted public indignation.