A comedian with no political experience raced ahead in the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election on Sunday, offering a fresh face to voters fed up with entrenched corruption in a country on the frontline of the West’s standoff with Russia.
With over half of all ballots counted by Monday morning, 41-year-old Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who plays a fictional president in a popular TV series, held a comfortable lead over incumbent President Petro Poroshenko in a vote deemed largely free and fair by the national electoral commission.
A crowded field of 39 candidates has now shrunk to just two, with Zelenskiy and Poroshenko set to go head-to-head in a second round run-off on April 21.
Propelled by his anti-establishment appeal, newcomer Zelenskiy must convince voters he is fit to lead a country. He has been criticized for being an unknown quantity and light on policy detail, and his victory speech on Sunday provided little further insight into what he would do if handed the top job in the second round vote.
With 50.4 percent of ballots counted by 09:00 (06:00 GMT) on Monday, Zelenskiy held 30.2 percent of the vote, the Central Election Commission said.
The result is a powerful challenge to the veteran politician Poroshenko, at 16.6 percent, and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who trailed in third place with 13.1 percent.
“I would like to say ‘thank you’ to all the Ukrainians who did not vote just for fun,” Zelenskiy told cheering supporters on Sunday. “It is only the beginning, we will not relax.”
In keeping with the laid-back style of his campaign, Zelenskiy’s election night venue provided a bar with free alcohol, table football and table tennis games.
Poroshenko called the result a “severe lesson”, especially from younger voters, and urged their support in a second round.
“You see changes in the country, but want them to be quicker, deeper and of higher quality. I have understood the motives behind your protest,” he said.