Ukrainians have gone to the polls in a crucial vote that could move a comedy actor with no political experience a step closer to becoming the country’s next president.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who plays the president in the television series Servant of the People, is expected to win Sunday’s vote in a rebuke of the country’s leadership.
He is followed in the polls by Petro Poroshenko, the incumbent who made a fortune from his chocolate empire, and Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister running as an anti-corruption firebrand.
No candidate is expected to win a majority, and a runoff with the top two candidates will take place on 21 April.
Polling stations across the country opened at 8am, sometimes with spreads of ham and cheese laid out for voters. Some of the people manning the polls began the day with rousing renditions of the Ukrainian national anthem while other Ukrainians congratulated each other about the “holiday of democracy”.
Others seemed daunted by the task of voting. Thirty-nine candidates were taking part in the first-round elections and the ballot was as long as two arms outstretched. “It’s just a circus,” muttered one man looking over two tables covered with one-page biographies of the candidates.
Zelenskiy’s dark horse campaign is largely counting on high turnout among younger voters eager for change in the country and disappointed with stalled reforms and a sluggish economy. Five years ago, Ukrainians overthrew their president in anti-corruption street protests. Many feel that the promise of the revolution has not been fulfilled.
“I was on the Maidan [Kyiv’s central square] because I wanted something different for myself and now for my daughter,” said Maria Tischenko, a consultant, who went to a local school to vote with her husband, Svyatoslav, and three-year-old daughter. “I haven’t seen anything real change and I do think that [Zelenskiy] is a fresh face at least.”
“I know he doesn’t have much experience but that is not the most important factor,” said her husband. “The professional politicians are corrupt.”
Others said Zelenskiy’s lack of experience would endanger a country facing a war against Russian-backed separatists in the south-east.
| Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who plays the president in a TV series, casts his ballot in Kyiv. Photograph: Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters
“It’s not the time to be choosing a comedian to be president and it’s not a joke, it is really dangerous,” said Mykhailo, 48, who declined to give his surname.The Guardian
He said he had voted for Poroshenko: “He isn’t given enough credit for the things he has done well. He is leading us through a war.”
The highly contested campaign has sparked fears of vote-buying and other tricks at the polls. Police reported several hundred violations by 1pm on Sunday but there were no reports of major falsifications or violence at the polls by early afternoon. Typically the most fraught moments come later in the evening, when the votes are tallied.
Zelenskiy’s campaign has embraced its reputation as unorthodox, holding comedy shows rather than traditional rallies and eschewing regular interviews with press. On Sunday, it opened its headquarters in a Kyiv lounge blasting music and advertising a ping-pong tournament with a chance to play Zelenskiy as the prize.
Sviatoslav Yurash, 23, an adviser to the campaign, said the campaign was confident of a first-round victory based on widespread disappointment with the president.
“The basic message that everyone is tired of the political elite is popular with all age categories, not just young people,” he said.
He added that he wanted to see Poroshenko knocked out in the first round. “I am extremely disappointed,” he said. “I would like to see Poroshenko disgraced and not enter the second round.