Volodymyr Zelensky, a 41-year-old Ukrainian-Jewish actor and comedian is projected to win Sunday’s run-off election against incumbent president Petro Poroshenko by a wide margin, exit polls showed Sunday night.
Zelensky won the first round of voting on March 31st, taking 30.2% of the vote, giving him a double-digit lead over Poroshenko’s 15.9%.
While polls prior to Sunday’s run-off vote showed Zelensky leading with between 48 to 55%, compared to just 17 to 31% for Poroshenko, exit polls project the political neophyte winning over 70% of the vote.
Best known for his role as a schoolteacher in the television program “Servant of the People”, Zelensky capitalized on the widespread frustration with Poroshenko’s administration and the ongoing corruption in the Ukrainian government.
Anti-corruption campaigners and other activists regularly suffer attacks.
Kateryna Gandzyuk, a 33-year-old anti-corruption activist, died last November, a few months after she had about a liter of acid poured on her by several attackers.
Promising reform, Zelensky’s presidential bid was initially dismissed as a joke – but as a political outsider managed to draw frustration with establishment politics, becoming the favored candidate to oust the unpopular incumbent president.
The story of his rise mirrored that of his character in the hit sitcom, which returned for its third season days before the first round of real-life voting last month.
In the show, a school history teacher is elected leader after a video rant against corruption goes viral.
As a candidate, Zelensky has blurred the line between politics and entertainment.
He eschewed media interviews and traditional rallies, preferring to address voters via social networks and perform in gigs with his sketch troupe right up to the first stage of the vote.
Ukrainian media outlets signed an open letter in the final days of the campaign demanding that Zelensky responds to their questions and flesh out his vague manifesto.
But the father-of-two has embraced the fact his campaign has been light on solid pledges. One of the posters for his candidacy read: “No promises — no apologies!”
Zelensky has been accused of being a front for the interests of controversial Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoysky, who owns the channel on which the actor’s shows are broadcast.
But the actor denied any political connection and in the last days of campaigning said the oligarch would be jailed if he was found to have violated any laws.
Kolomoysky, one of Ukraine’s richest men, became a regional governor at the start of Poroshenko’s term but was forced to resign following a row over a state oil firm. He now lives in Israel.
An investigative TV report at the start of the year meanwhile accused Zelensky of having commercial relations with Russia.
This is a highly sensitive issue following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and its backing of separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, in a conflict that has cost some 13,000 lives since 2014.
Following the broadcast, Zelensky confirmed he had shares in a Cypriot company that owns a Russian group and promised to sell them.
On the campaign trail, Poroshenko mocked the Ukrainian of his Russian-speaking rival and said he lacked the political chops to stand up to President Vladimir Putin.
Zelensky has insisted that as leader he would demand Putin end Moscow’s occupation of Ukrainian territory and pay compensation for the conflict.
And he has pledged to keep Kiev on the pro-Western course it charted under Poroshenko.
The diminutive performer, from the industrial city of Krivy Rig in central Ukraine, is a dollar millionaire.
He has a law degree but made his career in entertainment, turning his Kvartal 95 comedy troupe into big business. The group has toured in Russia and he has performed in Russian films.