Ukraine election: Comedian Zelensky takes commanding lead after first round, exit poll shows

But former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko disputes projections that show her narrowly missing out on second round run-off

Oliver Carroll
Monday 01 April 2019 07:30

Comedian and showman Volodymyr Zelensky has dominated voting in the first round of Ukraine’s presidential elections.

The first official exit polls released at the end of voting projected Mr Zelensky to finish on 30.4 per cent, a full 12 percentage points ahead of incumbent Petro Poroshenko (17.8 per cent) and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko (14.2 per cent).

But the real drama of Sunday’s election was the closer than expected margin between second and third places, which apparently eliminates Ms Tymoshenko from the second round on 21 April.

The difference of less than 4 per cent raised the prospect of prolonged protests and legal disputes.

At an event at her campaign headquarters after the exit polls were announced, Ms Tymoshenko refused to admit defeat. Instead, she claimed her own figures showed she had finished in second place with 20.9 per cent of the vote, and urged Ukrainians to wait for full and final results.

“If Poroshenko wins it will be the death of Ukrainian democracy,” she said

She said that she would dispute the results, but also stopped short of calling her supporters on the streets.

The traumatic mood in Ms Tymoshenko campaign headquarters – at one point she seemed close to tears – contrasted with jubilant scenes at Mr Zelensky’s hub across town on the banks of the Dnieper river.

There, in a business centre originally designed for disgraced former president Viktor Yanukovych, but now decked out in Mr Zelensky’s campaign colours of lime green, the champagne had been flowing since the early afternoon.

The first-round winner talked with journalists between games of table tennis.

The projected result made him “a bit nervous”, he said, but had left him with a “sense of responsibility”. He claimed to be “unconcerned” who he would compete against in the second round.

Mr Zelensky’s short and savvy campaign was short on policy specifics, but successfully focused on voter dissatisfaction and a youth agenda. Initial results suggested youngsters turned out in numbers to support him.

There were several unconventional and original aspects to his presidential pitch. As an actor who plays the lead role of teacher-turned-president in a comedy drama show, he is the first candidate to have tried out his presidency on voters in fiction form first.

And his novel use of television drama and the internet contrasted with many cruder technologies employed by the other two leading candidates.

Mr Poroshenko in particular was accused of using government money to pay for thousands of agitators. The president also signed off on a pension and social bonuses that meant 15 million people received unscheduled payments in the very month of elections. It is unclear if either method was illegal, but it certainly pushed the spirit of Ukrainian law to the extreme.

Those tactics may have added 5 per cent to his vote, says the independent expert Volodymyr Fesenko, and will likely be stepped up in the second round.

“We should also expect measures that will look to limit Mr Zelensky’s youth vote, such as free concerts out of town and so on,” he said. “These are tried and tested methods in Ukrainian politics.”

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Election violations on the day seem limited. Several hundred election crimes were were reported across the country, but most were of minor nature. One involved a family spat between a man and wife serving as election monitors.

Vita Dumanska, coordinator of Chesno, an independent election monitoring watchdog, said the elections were “largely clean”. She was unaware of violations that would “significantly” affect the final election results, she said.

Already experts were dissecting the apparent failure of Ms Tymoshenko’s campaign, her third and almost certainly final stab at the presidency.

According to the reformist MP Sergii Leschenko, Ms Tymoshenko had made a tactical mistake by starting the campaign too early: “She peaked too soon. By the end of the campaign, she had nothing to say and no new aces to bring out.”

Mr Fesenko suggested her campaign failed on message. Mr Poroshenko’s focus on the military and religion and Mr Zelensky’s focus on youth and the future proved “more enduring” to the Ukrainian voter than Ms Tymoshenko’s brand of economic populism.

The expert predicted that the former prime minister would take her dispute to “the end”, exhausting all legal avenues to “prove” Mr Poroshenko cheated, before switching to matters of revenge.

That, almost certainly, will include backing Mr Zelensky in the second round. Most of the other opposition candidates will also probably join her, meaning the comic showman is now odds-on favourite.

But having apparently scraped through by the skin of his teeth – a feat predicted by no opinion poll at the start of the month – Mr Poroshenko will also be fancying his chances.

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