Hopes, fears as Ukraine braces for comedian president

Evgeniya MAXIMOVA with Vassyl TRUKHAN in Lviv and Ania TSOUKANOVA in Kiev
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A fresh melody for Ukraine or the same tune again?

A fresh melody for Ukraine or the same tune again? (AFP Photo/Sergei GAPON)

Mariupol (Ukraine) (AFP) - Outside a polling station in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, just miles from the front of a conflict with Russia-backed separatists, an armoured police van stands guard.

Anna, a 24-year-old from the government-held eastern port city, said her vote was going to Volodymyr Zelensky -- a comedian with no political experience who is the favourite to win the presidency.

He's "the only candidate with whom a new life can begin," the architect told AFP.

Zelensky has risen in the polls on the back of frustration over economic hardship and corruption as well as the ongoing conflict which has cost some 13,000 lives over the past five years.

Anna said incumbent Petro Poroshenko, 53, had done "nothing tangible for us" after being elected shortly after a popular uprising in 2014.

Others disagree, praising Poroshenko for securing an Orthodox Church independent of Moscow and containing the fighting in the country's east.

Poroshenko "has secured the support of major countries to contain Russian aggression," said Sergiy, a 60-year-old who voted for the president.

"I can see how the army has been sorted out," the Mariupol resident said.

- 'Tired of lies' -

At the other end of the vast country in Lviv, a patriotic stronghold near the Polish border, 67-year-old Yuri also said he voted for Poroshenko.

"He is a real Ukrainian," the pensioner said.

Issues of national identity have dominated Poroshenko's campaign and the incumbent mocked the spoken Ukrainian of his rival, whose first language is Russian.

Yuri said a Zelensky presidency would be "a catastrophe".

Lviv is the main city in one of just two of Ukraine's regions where Poroshenko topped voting in the first round.

Anti-Zelensky posters pasted near a polling station in Lviv portrayed the poll favourite as a drug addict or warned of the collapse of the national currency if he was elected.

Tetyana, 31, admitted to voting for the comedian.

"I only support him because I'm against Poroshenko, but of course I'm scared," she said.

"I do not have much hope but I really want something to change in Ukraine and with the current president there will be no change for the next five years."

In central Kiev, 36-year-old chef Inna said she had backed Poroshenko because he would steer Ukraine towards Europe and away from Russia.

Inna lived in Donetsk, now held by separatists, but fled to the capital after conflict broke out. She and her family are anxious about the prospect of a Zelensky victory.

"We have nowhere to run" in the event of a fresh disaster, she said.

Near the same polling station, Anton Rudyi, 27, said he had voted for Zelensky.

If the actor fails, Rudyi believes "it will be easier to force him out than Poroshenko, who controls more than half of the parliament".

His partner Marta Semenyuk, 26, also cast her ballot for the comedian.

"We're tired of all the lies. On television they talk about wages going up whereas my mother, who's a teacher, spends 80 percent of her salary on electricity and heating in winter."