Volodymyr Zelenskyi, a comedian and political novice, scored a crushing victory over incumbent Petro Poroshenko in Ukraine’s runoff presidential vote Sunday, according to exit polls, in a resounding rebuke to the country’s political establishment.
The national exit poll, which consisted of results from a number of polling agencies, showed Zelenskyi winning 73.2 percent of the vote compared to Poroshenko’s 25.3 percent — a margin of victory of nearly 48 percentage points.
Other exit polls gave similar results. First official results are expected to be released early Monday morning.
Zelenskyi’s triumph was fueled by a wave of anti-establishment sentiment, similar to other populist insurgencies sweeping across the West.
But the comedian, who has promised to clean house among Ukraine’s ruling elite, will likely find fulfilling his supporters’ high expectations difficult — not the least due to his dearth of political knowledge: His only brush with Ukrainian politics has been to play the president in a popular television show called "Servant of the People."
"I promise all of you, I will never let you down," Zelenskyi told a jubilant crowd of supporters at his campaign headquarters upon hearing the exit poll results.
Zelenskyi thrashed Poroshenko in the first round of the election at the end of last month, setting the stage for Sunday’s runoff.
His meteoric political rise is largely due to being a new face in the political arena of a country where voters have grown tired with establishment politicians, and feel frustrated about issues such as corruption, the country’s unresolved war and a sluggish economy.
Zelenskyi's TV character, Vasily Goloborodko, is a modest high school teacher unexpectedly catapulted into the presidency overnight to confront the crooked political establishment and fight corruption.
Poroshenko, a billionaire candy tycoon and one of Ukraine’s richest men, was himself elected five years ago on a wave of anti-establishment sentiment, following a revolution that drove the country’s pro-Moscow leader, Viktor Yanukovych, from power.
The outgoing president can point to a number of big wins during his time in office, such as containing the Kremlin-led insurrection in the country’s east, acquiring visa-free travel for Ukrainians to the EU and staving off economic collapse. But for many voters, Poroshenko has come to symbolize oligarchs’ continued grip on Ukraine’s economy and government.
Links to oligarch
Election day was fairly uneventful — a stark contrast to the campaign itself, which was marked by accusations of foul play, insults and heated rhetoric.
A debate between the two candidates Friday in Kiev’s central football stadium, for example, resembled more a sporting contest than a political discussion, with more than 20,000 cheering supporters in attendance and millions more watching on television.
On Sunday, Zelenskyi was greeted by a crush of journalists when he arrived at his polling station, and said little more than that the election was "a victory for the Ukrainian people."
Poroshenko, for his part, cast his ballot in central Kiev around midday and warned against taking the election lightly.
"It is very important to be guided by reason during the vote," he said. "Because it’s not funny. At first maybe it seems funny and fun, but it should not be painful later."
During the campaign, Poroshenko said Zelenskyi was too weak and inexperienced to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and called him a "bright candy wrapper" — an attractive, insubstantial covering that concealed the vested interests of other oligarchs.
In particular, he accused Zelenskyi of being a "puppet" of Ihor Kolomoisky, a Ukrainian billionaire currently residing in self-imposed exile in Israel, who is accused by Ukrainian authorities of embezzling more than $5 billion from account-holders at his former bank, PrivatBank.
Kolomoisky denies the charges, and the two men say they don’t share any connection beyond the fact that Zelenskyi’s show airs on Kolomoisky’s television network.
But the two men do share the same lawyer and bodyguards. A Ukrainian investigative program also published travel records showing Zelenskyi had flown more than a dozen times to Geneva and Tel Aviv, where Kolomoiskiy lives.
Zelenskyi is widely expected to maintain Ukraine's generally pro-Western orientation in foreign policy but the question marks about his links to Kolomoiskiy, and his commitment to break with oligarch power, are likely to linger.
"I am not that concerned by Russia’s influence — the risk from Kolomoisky is larger," said Timothy Ash, a Ukraine expert and London-based economist with BlueBay Asset Management. "No Ukrainian politician can be pro-Russian and stay in office or win office."
Still, Anders Aslund from the U.S.-based think tank the Atlantic Council said that because "everybody will keep their eyes on anything that looks like Kolomoisky influence," it would be Zelenskyi’s "political death" if he offered Kolomoisky anything.
But making any predictions about what kind of president Zelenskyi will be is extremely difficult, simply for the fact that the comedian spoke in vague generalities and avoided any grilling from the press during his campaign.
Some Ukraine-watchers point to the fact that he has included a number of well-known reformers among his advisers as proof that he will pursue a reformist path.
But this is offset by his complete lack of experience with Ukrainian politics and politicians. Zelenskyi will be dependent on all of those who gain his ear — and there are indications that the jockeying for influence has already begun.
"It is very difficult to speak with certainty about anything," said Alyona Getmanchuk, director of the Kiev-based think tank New Europe Center. "He has said he will continue policies with the International Monetary Fund and European Union — but how he will implement this is unknown."
Zelenskyi, whose inauguration will take place at the beginning of June, will also have to contend with Poroshenko's allies both in government and parliament, unless he can win a working majority in a parliamentary election later this year
As president, he will be able to make a few key appointments, such as foreign minister, defense minister, head of the state security agency and prosecutor general.
In a speech following the exit poll results, Poroshenko said he would support the newly-elected commander-in-chief, but also would oppose any policies not in the national interest.
"I am leaving office, but I want to firmly underline that I am not leaving politics," Poroshenko said.
But the most important group that Zelenskyi must contend with are the millions of Ukrainians who voted for him. A victory of this magnitude creates equally high expectations.
Many are expecting him to fully carry out so-called "de-oligarchization" — a goal that has eluded every Ukrainian leader before him.
"I voted for Zelenskyi because I believe that he will be able to defeat corruption in the country," said Elena Kalynyna, 33, an information technologies worker in Kiev.
"If he does like he’s promised, to completely change the entire power structure, then that should do the trick."
By David Stern, Politico