Comedian upsets Ukraine's president in landslide election victory

Alec Luhn
Actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who plays Ukraine's president in a hit TV show, celebrates after exit polls showed he has won the post in real life - REUTERS

A comedian who plays the president on television has turned art into real life in a landslide election against the incumbent in conflict-torn Ukraine, according to exit polls.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, 41, had 73 per cent of the vote against 26 per cent for Petro Poroshenko, 53, who was elected after protests toppled a pro-Russian leader in 2014.

The story is remarkably similar to the hit show Servant of the People, where a teacher played by Mr Zelenskiy is elected president on the strength of a viral video rant.

A lack of reform since the 2014 revolution has fuelled support for the outsider promising to fight corruption and leave after one term. Mr Zelenskiy easily won the first round of voting albeit without a majority. 

But his superficial campaign of comedy shows and social media videos has offered little insight on how the political neophyte will achieve this with a parliament mostly allegiant to Mr Poroshenko.

“Thank you to all Ukrainians, wherever you are located. I promise I will never let you down,” Mr Zelenskiy said in a victory speech that lasted less than three minutes.

“To all citizens of post-Soviet countries: Look at us. Anything is possible,” he added. 

Mr Poroshenko congratulated his opponent on victory shortly after the polls closed, saying the election had been fair and shown Ukraine to be an “independent European country”.

The candidate previously betrayed his inexperience when he posed with his filled-in ballot on Sunday, a violation of election laws that earned him a police citation. 

Now the poorest country in Europe, Ukraine and its 42 million people stand at the forefront of tensions between Russia and the West, fighting a low-level conflict with Moscow-backed separatists that continues to claim lives.

Mr Zelenskiy has said he would meet Vladimir Putin and involve the UK and United States in new talks to solve the conflict, but also promised not to lift the economic blockade on the separatist-held areas. 

An advisor to the Kremlin told The Telegraph that a plan reported last week to give Russian passports to residents of these breakaway republics was meant as a test for the incoming Ukrainian leader.

Before casting his ballot, Mr Poroshenko went to a service at St Michael's monastery in Kiev, highlighting his success in obtaining recognition for a new Ukrainian Orthodox church independent of Russia.

President Petro Poroshenko casts his vote on Sunday Credit: Sergei Supinsky/AFP

Ukraine is now the only country besides Israel with a Jewish president and prime minister, as both Mr Zelenskiy and Volodymyr Groysman have Jewish heritage.

Sunday's vote ended a dirty campaign that culminated in a venomous debate at Kiev's 70,000-seat Olympic stadium on Friday evening. Mr Poroshenko has been accused of “black PR” against his opponent following a video showing Mr Zelenskiy being hit by a lorry.

A format where the candidates asked questions of each other quickly devolved into recriminations touching on the scandals in which both have been embroiled.

Returning to central motifs of his campaign, Mr Poroshenko said Mr Zelenskiy was unprepared to stand up to Vladimir Putin and suggested he was a puppet of self-exiled oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, owner of the channel that broadcasts his shows. 

Mr Zelenskiy pointed out that the president was the owner of a candy-making empire that until 2017 had a factory in Russia, accusing him of enriching his friends while in power. He repeatedly threatened to put Mr Poroshenko on trial. 

The president dismissed Mr Zelenskiy's allegations as “rubbish”.

The spectre of Mr Kolomoisky will continue to loom over Mr Zelenskiy as president, however. 

Just days before the vote, a court ruled that the oligarch's PrivatBank was illegally nationalised after a $5.5 billion hole was found in its accounts. Any move to hand the bank back is sure to be opposed by the international monetary fund, a vital creditor for Ukraine. 

A Femen activist staged a topless protest outside a Kiev polling station on Sunday, warning that a Zelenskiy presidency end up being a “funny mistake”.

Mr Poroshenko said in his conciliatory remarks that he would not leave politics but rather continue to fight for reform.

He and former PM Yulia Tymoshenko may be planning “to take their revenge during the parliamentary elections” in October, analyst Volodymyr Fesenko told The Telegraph.

The prime minister's position could become even more important if lawmakers attempt long-discussed reforms to strip some powers from the president. 

Russia's troll factory was also accused of buying Ukrainians' Facebook accounts to spread disinformation before the vote. 

Last week, the authorities arrested seven men in what they said was a Russian plot to assassinate Ukrainian officials. One of the men injured himself when a car bomb he was setting in Kiev exploded in his face.