Ukraine election: Comedian Volodymr Zelensky elected president in landslide win, humiliating incumbent Petro Poroshenko

Oliver Carroll
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Ukraine election: Comedian Volodymr Zelensky elected president in landslide win, humiliating incumbent Petro Poroshenko

Reflecting on an extraordinary triumph that saw him sweep home with three times the votes of his opponent, comedian Volodymr Zelensky said his victory offered an example of democratic change to the rest of the former Soviet Union.

“I say to you, look at us,” he said. “Everything is possible.”

Delivering a speech to more than 700 cheering aides and journalists, the president-elect promised he would not “mess up” on the challenge he had been given, after an exit poll suggested he would gain nearly three-quarters of votes.

But in line with a campaign that has remarkably avoided any detailed policy discussion, Mr Zelensky offered no clarity about the future direction of his presidency.

With polls showing Mr Zelensky enjoying a commanding lead since the first round on 31 March, the result of the election was never in much doubt. But the scale of his victory, projected at 73 per cent against 25, was such that Petro Poroshenko must now be wondering about his political future.

As election day approached, this had become a very personal campaign, with the incumbent taking greater control over strategy. But Mr Poroshenko’s hands-on intervention was ultimately unsuccessful. It now seems unlikely he will be able to build up any significant momentum ahead of October’s all-important parliamentary elections.

Speaking to altogether glummer faces at his election headquarters across town, Mr Poroshenko said he would stay in politics to defend his achievements.

“Never give up, I’ve said it before. I say it again, now I see the results of the exit polls, which are obvious. They tell me that I need to call my opponent right now and congratulate him.”

Just after 9pm local time, Mr Poroshenko phoned to congratulate the comedian on his victory, promising to assist the new president in his job. It was a symbolic moment – a rare, peaceful and democratic transfer of power in post-Soviet history.

As the first leaked polling numbers began to show the thing that Mr Poroshenko most feared – a high turnout at more than 60 per cent – the bar of what constituted even partial victory went lower and lower.

In the event, Mr Poroshenko was even unable to command a majority in the western region previously considered most receptive to his militaristic-nationalistic offer.

At polling stations across Kiev, Ukrainians told The Independent that the vote for Mr Zelensky was more accurately a vote of dissatisfaction with the incumbent president. Some said they had voted for the president, but recognised that the majority had become disillusioned with his government.

“People want change but don’t understand the real world,” said Natalya Kovalenko, a businesswoman, shortly after casting her vote at polling station number 800633 in Kiev’s Podil district. “The democratic process is a good thing, but the Zelensky vote is born out of immaturity.”

Mr Zelensky’s supporters said the incumbent had exhausted the trust of his fellow countrymen.

“We need someone who can give a chance to the young generation, not to their cronies,” said Oleg, a concert promoter also casting his vote at station 800633, who asked that his surname be withheld.

Further down the road at polling station 800697, returning officers reported that people’s anger with the government occasionally spilt over into dealings with them.

“They see us as an extension of government, so they think it’s OK to throw all their bad vibes on us,” said Yevgenia Gaidai. “We had to calm a few of them down.”

Other than that, the vote had gone smoothly, Ms Gaidai said, with only minimal electoral violations. It was “the cleanest” election she had witnessed in “many decades” in the job, she added.

That picture that mirrored elsewhere across the country, with the monitoring organisation Chesno reporting a reasonably clean bill of health. “There was pressure on voters, but the elections were reasonably smooth and freer than ever before,” said Chesno’s analyst Anton Filippov.

Ukraine’s outgoing president will now reflect on the things that went wrong: an inferior social media presence and messaging; an electoral strategy that failed to address people’s economic hopes; and a campaign that failed to reverse the perception of unfulfilled promises.

“Ukraine gave up on Poroshenko like people give up alcohol,” says Konstantyn Batozsky, an independent political expert and former civil servant. “He managed to unite the nation in a way no previous president did – united in hatred of Poroshenko. Tomorrow everyone will be quarrelling again.”

Mr Zelensky, an accidental president, will also be reflecting on his own unlikely path from comic actor to head of state.

A presidency likely first conceived as a joke had now become a reality, says Valery Kalnysh, editor of NV radio, an independent political broadcaster.

“We understand his candidacy emerged after indicative polls were commissioned to see which personalities could challenge Poroshenko,” he says.

“It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m sure he is as shocked as the rest of us.”