Volodymyr Zelenskiy, 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 Zelenskiy 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.
Zelenskiy’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,” Zelenskiy told a jubilant crowd of supporters at his campaign headquarters upon hearing the exit poll results.
Zelenskiy 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.
Zelenskiy’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.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko casts his ballot in Kiev on April 21, 2019 | Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images
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, Zelenskiy 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 Zelenskiy 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 Zelenskiy 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.