Ukrainians went to polls Sunday in the second round of an extraordinary election with a comedian who plays a president on TV expected to win in a stunning rebuke to the political establishment.
Forty-one-year-old Volodymyr Zelensky’s bid to lead the country of 45 million people was initially dismissed as a joke when he announced his candidacy on New Year’s Eve.
But now all opinion polls suggest incumbent President Petro Poroshenko is heading for defeat amid widespread anger over poverty, corruption and war.
Zelensky’s victory is expected to open a new chapter in the history of a country that has gone through two popular uprisings in two decades and is mired in a five-year conflict with separatists in the east.
Polling stations opened at 0500 GMT as voters from Ukrainian-speaking regions in the west to Russian-speaking regions in the war-torn east went to cast their ballots.
Speaking outside a polling booth in the capital Kiev, Galyna, 81, said she voted for Zelensky.
“Because I am against Poroshenko,” said the pensioner who refused to give her last name.
‘People went mad’
Zelensky has tapped into widespread frustration over graft, poverty and a conflict with separatists that has claimed some 13,000 lives.
But others doubted whether the consummate showman would be able to take on the country’s vested interests, negotiate with the likes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and stand up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Viktoriya Olomutska in Kiev suggested many voted for teacher-turned-president Vasyl Goloborodko, Zelensky’s character in the popular TV show “Servant of the People”, now in its third season and available on Netflix.
“People have gone mad,” said the 39-year-old Poroshenko supporter, adding many pinned their hopes on “a fictional character”.
Seventy-eight-year-old Maria said it was incomprehensible to her that a majority supported Zelensky.
“There cannot be so many fools in the country,” she fumed. “But no, apparently there are!”
A survey by the Rating pollster this week showed Zelensky winning 73 percent of the vote against 27 percent for Poroshenko.
Exit poll results are expected at 1700 GMT and the first preliminary results several hours later.
The stakes are high for a country dependent on international aid and seen as a buffer between the European Union and Russia.
Poroshenko, 53, has argued Zelensky is a political novice unfit to be a war-time commander-in-chief.
On Saturday, Poroshenko made a last-ditch plea to voters, begging Ukrainians to think twice before backing his rival.
“A five-year presidential term is not a comedy that you can easily switch off if it is no longer funny,” he said on Facebook.
“Neither is it a horror movie that can be easily stopped.”
Poroshenko came to power after a bloody 2014 uprising ousted a Kremlin-backed regime, triggering Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.
But many feel the promises of the pro-Western revolution have been forgotten.
Zelensky has shunned campaign rallies in favour of comedy gigs and used social media to share political messages, including to 3.7 million followers on Instagram.
His brand of outsider politics and unorthodox style have earned him comparisons to Italy’s comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo and US President Donald Trump.
But questions have been raised over his links to controversial oligarch Igor Kolomoysky, whose TV channel broadcasts the entertainer’s shows.
Analysts say Zelensky’s political programme is vague at best and it remains unclear who will fill key positions in his government.
Poroshenko supporters credit him with rebuilding the army and securing an Orthodox Church independent of Russia.
But in the first round of the election last month he won only half of Zelensky’s vote share.
‘All eyes on Ukraine’
The West has closely watched the race amid concern a new government might undo years of economic reforms.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called both Zelensky and Poroshenko on the eve of the run-off vote.
Pompeo “reiterated our commitment to working with whomever the Ukrainian people choose to ensure the success of a secure, prosperous, democratic, & free (country),” Washington’s special envoy Kurt Volker wrote on Twitter.
William Taylor, a former US ambassador to Ukraine who co-leads a National Democratic Institute delegation of international observers, said the election result would have an impact around the world.
“All eyes are on Ukraine — an emerging democracy on the front lines of Russian aggression,” he said.