Thursday 22 August 2019

Comedian leads Ukraine presidential vote

Incumbent president Petro Poroshenko was a distant second with about 16.6%.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy takes part in a press conference after the vote (Emilio Morenatti/AP)
Volodymyr Zelenskiy takes part in a press conference after the vote (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

By Yuras Karmanau, Associated Press

Early results in Ukraine’s presidential election show a comedian with no political experience maintaining his strong lead against the incumbent president in the first round, setting the stage for a run-off in three weeks.

With just over half of the votes counted on Monday, Volodymyr Zelenskiy had 30.2% of the vote.

Incumbent president Petro Poroshenko was a distant second with about 16.6%.

Ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko trailed behind with 13%.

The results were in line with a top exit poll.

The strong showing of Zelenskiy reflects the public longing for a fresh leader who has no links to the corruption-ridden Ukrainian political elite.

They hope he can offer a new approach to settling the grinding conflict with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

“This is only the first step toward a great victory,” Zelenskiy said after seeing the exit poll findings.

The top two candidates advance to a run-off on April 21. Final results in Sunday’s first round are expected to be announced later Monday.

Zelenskiy dismissed suggestions that he could pool forces with Tymoshenko to get the backing of her voters in the second round in exchange for forming a coalition following parliamentary elections in the autumn.

“We aren’t making any deals with anyone,” he said. “We are young people. We don’t want to see all the past in our future, the future of our country.”

Like the character he plays in a TV sitcom, a schoolteacher turned president, Zelenskiy made fighting corruption a focus of his candidacy.

He proposed a lifetime ban on holding public office for anyone convicted of corruption.

He also called for direct negotiations with Russia on ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

The election was marred by allegations of widespread vote buying.

Poroshenko looked sombre as the votes came in, but visibly relieved about surpassing Tymoshenko to advance to the run-off.

“I critically and soberly understand the signal that society gave today to the acting authorities,” he said.

“It’s a tough lesson for me and my team. It’s a reason for serious work to correct mistakes made over the past years.”

Poroshenko, 53, a confectionery tycoon before he was elected five years ago, saw approval of his governing sink amid Ukraine’s economic woes and a sharp plunge in living standards.

Poroshenko campaigned on promises to defeat the rebels in the east and to wrest back control of Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014 in a move that has drawn sanctions against Russia from the US and the European Union.

A military embezzlement scheme that allegedly involved top Poroshenko associates as well as a factory controlled by the president dogged Poroshenko before the election.

After the vote Poroshenko hit back at Zelenskiy, describing him as a pawn of self-exiled billionaire businessman Igor Kolomoyskyi, charges that Zelenskiy denies.

“Fate pitted me against Kolomoyskyi’s puppet in the run-off,” he said. “We won’t leave a single chance for Kolomoyskyi.”

Zelenskiy quickly shot back, saying mockingly that it was impossible to say whether a corrupt official involved in the military embezzlement scheme was Poroshenko’s puppet, or the other way round.

PA Media

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