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Comedian expected to crush incumbent in Ukraine’s presidential election

Comedian expected to crush incumbent in Ukraine’s presidential election
Ukrainians go to the polls Sunday to decide between presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky, left, a comedian and television star, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, right, who has been in office since 2015. (Genya Savilov / AFP/Getty Images)

Faced with the strong possibility of being trounced by a comedian with no political experience, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has started throwing Hail Marys.

In the week leading up to this Sunday’s election, the 53-year-old president awkwardly performed a folk song on stage. He promised young voters he’d hire more of them in his next administration. And he apologized for past mistakes and met with civil society leaders to say he’d listen more if given another chance.

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In what appeared to be a direct response to accusations from his opponent — Volodymyr Zelensky — that he did nothing to battle the country’s endemic corruption, Poroshenko appointed 38 judges to the country’s new anti-corruption court in one fell swoop.

If the latest polls are correct, the election will be a blow-out, with 72% of voters ready to cast their ballot for Zelensky, compared to 25% for Poroshenko.

Zelensky, 41, has more than doubled his lead over the president since the first round of voting in March, when he beat out 38 other candidates, in a surprise upset. Because none of the candidates got more than 50% to win outright, the top two candidates now face a runoff.

Zelensky rose to fame as an actor in his comedy troupe Kvartal 95. His latest hit is a television series, “Servant of the People,” in which he plays a history teacher who is elected president after a video of him ranting about corrupt politicians goes viral.

He has run an anti-establishment campaign that has relied heavily on a savvy social media program that crowdsourced policy suggestions from voters. The approach has won over voters who say they are looking for a new, fresh face in a landscape of Ukraine’s usual political elite.

Poroshenko, a billionaire chocolate tycoon, was elected in 2014, months after street protests forced out a Kremlin-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovich, and Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and starting backing a pro-Russian separatist movement in the east.

The ongoing conflict in the east has cost the country more than 13,000 lives.

Under Poroshenko’s watch, the country’s weakened economy stabilized. He oversaw the rebuilding of the army to fight the Russian-backed militias.

He has pushed for the passage of a law that made Ukrainian the state language and made it the primary language in education.

Last year, Poroshenko claimed victory when the Ukrainian Orthodox Church became an independent church blessed by the Patriarch of Constantinople — a landmark move that separated it from the Russian Orthodox Church.

But neither Poroshenko’s experience nor his campaign slogan — “Language. Faith. Army” — were enough to win over voters who said they were fed up with corruption and the president’s connection to the political elite.

“This isn’t the same Ukraine as it was five, 10 or 25 years ago,” said Dmytro Bedratenko, 38, an entrepreneur from the central region of Cherkassy. “Ukrainians are tired of the language issue and the nationalism stuff. Mostly, we just want to see something new.”

At a debate between the candidates Friday — the only one of the campaign — Poroshenko told thousands of people gathered in Kiev’s main soccer stadium that the election was about whether “Ukranians will decide to stay on the course toward Europe of go back toward Russia.”

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Zelensky said it was about voters judging Poroshenko for his failures. “I’m not just your opponent,” he said. “I’m your verdict.”

Poroshenko’s patriotic campaign worked to win over his supporters in the first round, many of whom would probably vote for him regardless, said Taras Berezovets, a political analyst and host of a television talk show, “The Week.”

“But I think it was a mistake to concentrate only on these logos: language, army, and the like,” he said. “This tactic limited his political maneuvers. He needed to present something very different for undecided voters.”

Poroshenko won in 2014 by presenting himself as the president who would bring peace. This time, he inspired more fear than reassurance at a time when many Ukrainians want first and foremost for the war to end, Berezovets said.

In campaign speeches, he emphasized the idea that Russian President Vladimir Putin was ready to attack Ukraine at any moment. “People got scared with his message,” Berezovets said. “He should have come with a message of peace.”

Zelensky is riding a wave that has brought anti-establishment politicians to power around the world. Still, many analysts expressed worry over how little is known about his politics.

Zelensky, like Poroshenko, says he wants to pursue a pro-Western agenda. But he has given few interviews, and his platform offers few details.

To stop the war, for example, Zelensky has said both sides need to stop shooting.

“What does that mean, that our soldiers should just stop defending themselves against Russian attacks?” asked Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, a deputy prime minister for Ukraine’s European and Euro-Atlantic integration.

Klympush-Tsintsadze said she worried that a Zelensky win would destroy the progress made over the last five years and make the country more susceptible to destabilization from Russia.

“If there’s a reversal of this momentum and it creates instability in some of the still fragile institutions we have rebuilt, this could make Ukraine vulnerable to another attack from the outside,” she said.

But Ukrainians are willing to take a risk with Zelensky in order to change the political system completely, said Olena Tregub, the secretary general of Independent Defense Anti-Corruption Committee, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to fighting corruption in the government defense and security sectors.

Distrust of the current political elite is a major driving force of this election, with polls showing that just 9% of the population trusts the current government.

“Voters are desperate for a new face, and they are so desperate that, at this point, the bar is very low,” Tregub said. “They don't care that this new face may not be prepared. They don't care that he may not be professional. All they want is for this person to be fresh and have not been in politics.”

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