This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
With vote counting coming to an end in Ukraine’s presidential election, television comic and political newcomer Volodymyr Zelenskiy seems certain to gain a landslide victory over incumbent President Petro Poroshenko in a strong rebuke of establishment politics in the face of a struggling economy and a five-year-old conflict with Russia.
With over 98 percent of the ballots counted in the April 21 second-round vote, Zelenskiy had 73.2 percent, compared with just 24.5 percent for the 53-year-old billionaire businessman, mirroring exit polls.
Zelenskiy has described his candidacy as “a simple man who has come to destroy this system,” in a reference to public perceptions that Ukraine’s politics and society are mired in corruption and nepotism against the backdrop of a draining five-year war against Russia-backed separatists.
Poroshenko, who conceded soon after an early National Exit Poll was released, had cast himself as the candidate capable of blunting Russian aggression.
“I want to say that I am very grateful to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who just congratulated me on my victory,” Zelensky said at a press conference shortly after polls closed in the April 21 runoff. “I thank him. He said that I can count on his help at any time. He acknowledged my victory and my team’s.”
European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on April 22 sent a joint letter of congratulations to Zelenskiy that praised Ukraine’s “strong attachment to democracy and the rule of law.”
“This is a major achievement in the complex political, economic, and security environment, against the backdrop of continuous challenges to Ukraine’s territorial integrity,” the letter stated.
“As president of Ukraine, you can count on the EU’s strong support to Ukraine’s reform path…” it continued. “You can also count on the EU’s continued and steadfast support of Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt also congratulated the apparent election victor.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also congratulated Zelenskiy and confirmed that “Ukraine is a valued NATO partner,” in a post on Twitter.
Ukrainska Pravda reported that U.S. President Donald Trump had spoken with Zelenskiy by phone to congratulate him.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev wrote on Facebook that the election showed “a clear demand for new approaches in solving Ukraine’s problems” and said he sees “chances for improving cooperation” between Russia and Ukraine.
After polls closed, Zelenskiy said he intends to bring “new people” into Ukrainian politics, adding that he would turn to Poroshenko for advice “if I need it.” He said he would make personnel announcements “in the near future.”
He said that his top priority as president would be to secure from Russia the release of all Ukrainian prisoners of war and other prisoners and pledged to “reboot” the Minsk process for resolving the conflict in parts of eastern Ukraine.
“Our first task is the liberation of our prisoners,” he said. “I will do everything to get our boys home. All our prisoners, without exception.”
Earlier in the evening, about a minute before the exit-poll result was announced, Zelenskiy strode to the stage at his campaign headquarters with a wide smile and to the theme song from his popular TV show, in which he plays a schoolteacher who accidentally becomes president. He counted down from five…four…three….
At one, the exit-poll figures flashed, suggesting the actor-cum-candidate would become Ukraine’s sixth elected president since it declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
“Thank you, everyone!” Zelenskiy shouted into a microphone as a crowd of supporters cheered and confetti fell.
“We did this together,” he said. “I promise that I will never let you down. And since I am not yet president, I can speak just as a Ukrainian: Let the entire former Soviet Union look at us and see that anything is possible.”
Voters appeared unpersuaded by billionaire businessman Poroshenko’s appeals for a second five-year term to bring a more seasoned political and diplomatic hand to the country’s problems.
In his concession speech, Poroshenko vowed to remain in politics.
“In any political role, I will do my best to counter revanchism and to ensure that Ukraine does not change its course,” he said. “However, the outcome of the election leaves us with uncertainty, unpredictability, and a big question mark on whether the strategic course of Ukraine toward the EU and NATO will be secure and democratic reforms will continue.”
He also called on the international community “to help Ukraine secure its recent achievements and the strategic course of the nation for integration into the European Union and NATO.”
“Please, stay with Ukraine, no matter what,” he said.
During his concession speech, Poroshenko tweeted from his official account that “everything will be fine” and suggested that the common goal of those in power and in opposition was to ensure that Ukraine becomes “a big, successful, European country.”
Five years after street unrest unseated pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych when he spurned closer integration with the European Union, outsiders are hoping for renewed stability in a country that remains a major energy transit route to Europe and a key ally in efforts to keep a resurgent Russia in check.
Zelenskiy won handily across the country, according to the National Exit Poll. It showed him winning 57 percent in western Ukraine, compared to Poroshenko’s 41.3 percent. In central Ukraine, the poll shows Zelenskiy with 70.3 percent and Poroshenko with 28 percent. In the south, Zelenskiy polled 85.4 percent and Poroshenko 13.4 percent. In eastern Ukraine, the preliminary exit poll gives Zelenskiy 87.7 percent and Poroshenko just 11.2 percent.
Zelenskiy won the first round of voting on March 31 with 30 percent of the vote in a field of 39 candidates. Poroshenko took second with 16 percent.
A 41-year-old comic who shot to fame playing an accidental president in a TV sitcom, Zelenskiy joked with reporters as he voted in Kyiv early on April 21 that his wife had put him in a good mood ahead of time by playing him a song by American rapper Eminem.
“Today will be a victory for Ukrainians, a victory for Ukraine,” he said. “We have united Ukraine.”
Asked by RFE/RL what would be his first order of business if elected, Zelenskiy answered, “War and corruption.”
Poroshenko, a 53-year-old chocolate mogul, also cast his ballot in Kyiv early in the day, urging voters to take their decision seriously and praising the conduct of the election.
“I am proud of the way the elections have been organized this year,” Poroshenko told journalists. “Our citizens can freely express their will. Our democratic tradition is protected. This is what characterizes Ukraine as a European state.”
“It’s important to be guided by reason, not laughs,” the president added, saying “it might be funny at first, but pain may come later.”
Pollsters said in the months leading up to the voting that a majority of voters were hoping for dramatic changes after the election.
Outside the Maritime Academy where Zelenskiy voted, Kateryna Chala, the founder of an IT company, told RFE/RL that she had voted for Poroshenko.
Chala said Poroshenko has made mistakes since coming to power following pro-EU unrest and a Russian invasion in 2014 but has put Ukraine on a path toward the West she hopes will eventually lead to membership in the European Union and NATO.
“We have a lot of problems…like high gas prices, [high] prices in the shops…” she said. “I understand it’s not possible to create a miracle and fix everything in just one day.”
Zelenskiy ran his campaign mostly on social media and largely avoided substantial policy discussions, benefiting from Ukraine’s slumping economy, endemic corruption, and fatigue over Kyiv’s ongoing war in parts of eastern Ukraine. Notably, he even sought to crowdsource a possible cabinet.
Some of Zelenskiy’s critics, including Poroshenko, have questioned his ties to the foreign-based Ukrainian oligarch whose TV station airs Zelenskiy’s programs, Ihor Kolomoyskiy.
After an inauguration slated for early June, Zelenskiy and his allies could face an early test in national parliamentary elections in October.
Both Poroshenko and Zelenskiy are widely regarded as pro-Western.
Zelenskiy says he supports Ukraine’s eventual membership in NATO but only if it is approved in a referendum. He has insisted that Russia must return the Black Sea region of Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014, and pay reparations.
Zelenskiy has called for direct talks with Russia over the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has claimed more than 13,000 lives. In the past, Moscow has rejected such proposals, claiming the conflict was an internal matter for Ukraine and urging Kyiv to negotiate with representatives of the Moscow-backed separatist formations.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) ruled in November 2016 that the war in eastern Ukraine was “an international armed conflict between Ukraine and the Russian Federation.”