A Ukrainian comedy actor who played the country's president in a hit TV show is being taken seriously as a contender in Ukraine's presidential election in March.
Actor, screenwriter, comedian and director Volodymyr Zelensky is an anti-establishment candidate who has been riding high in opinion polls ahead of the vote on March 31 and is a possible winner, experts say.
The latest poll by BDM conducted at the start of February shows Zelensky with 17 percent of the vote, trailing opposition leader (and ex-prime minister) Yulia Tymoshenko who polls with 21.3 percent of the vote. Both candidates are ahead of the third horse in the race, incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, who is seen with 10.8 percent of the vote, the poll of over 4,000 people showed.
In all there are 44 presidential candidates but only a handful are seen with any chance of making it through the first round of voting.
Zelensky, 41, has tapped into popular discontent in Ukraine and is already a well-known figure in Ukraine, having played the part of the president in hit TV sitcom, "Servant of the People," a series that was later picked up by Netflix.
In the show, Zelensky plays a history teacher whose anti-government rant goes viral, leading him to win an election and become president (while trying to avoid the trappings of a president's life). The series enjoyed huge popularity for its lampooning of government and politicians. Like his character in the series, Zelensky has said he would focus on tackling corruption in Ukraine if he took office. He is not without controversy, however, because of his own business links to Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoyskyi – something his opponents have been quick to seize upon.
"The source of his popularity is that he does not belong to the establishment, and has been conducting an unorthodox election campaign," according to Tadeusz Iwanski, research fellow at Warsaw-based think-tank, the Center for Eastern Studies.
"Zelenskiy communicates with voters by using social media and holding concerts in Ukraine's regional centres, while the TV series and cabaret shows in which he stars are among the most popular in Ukraine," Iwanski said in a note last week.
While Zelensky's popularity has sharply risen in recent weeks, fueled largely by public dissatisfaction at the traditional political elite, analysts are keen to point out that his support base might be unstable. They also note that his policies and program for government are unclear.
Otilia Dhand, senior vice president at Teneo Intelligence, said for Zelensky to pass into the crucial second round of voting he will have to offer a more detailed manifesto.
"Given that Zelensky does not have a well-defined program, policy implications of his potential victory are difficult to gauge for now. It is likely that ahead of the second round, Zelensky would put forward a more detailed policy plan. Meanwhile, the main concern is his lack of political experience and questions over his ability to steer the unwieldy Ukrainian political system to deliver reforms, including those required under the current IMF arrangement," Dhand said in a note last week.
A government led by an inexperienced politicians could be a big problem for Ukraine, a country largely reliant on foreign donors and an aid program from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In December, the IMF approved a new 14-month near $4 billion loan that replaced a four-year $17.5 billion aid package agreed in 2015.
That aid came after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and then supported a pro-Russian uprising in the east of the country, prompting the economy to decline as investors feared further instability.
The IMF's latest loan comes with four main conditions; that the government continues an ongoing fiscal consolidation to keep public debt on a downward path; reduces inflation while maintaining a flexible exchange rate regime; strengthens the financial sector; and advances structural reforms to improve tax administration, privatization and governance.
Incumbent President Petro Poroshenko has pitched himself as the continuity candidate and one that can continue a reform drive. Poroshenko has "the power of incumbency on his side," according to Dhand.
"Zelensky is rising due to his appeal as an outsider and has topped several public opinion polls in recent days. However, the novelty may wear out before the vote, exposing the lack of a clearly defined program, especially on economic policy," Dhand said.
The first round of voting takes place on March 31 and unless any of the candidates gain a 50 percent plus share of the vote a second round of voting will be held on April 21. Teneo Intelligence still sees the most likely scenario as a run-off between Tymoshenko and Poroshenko.
"While Tymoshenko continues to lead opinion polls, her rating has declined recently and she is highly unpopular outside her voter pool. She is also being labeled as Russia's favorite candidate, and this will likely further limit her upward polling mobility.
Meanwhile, Poroshenko's popularity is steadily increasing and he has the power of incumbency on his side," Dhand said.
If Poroshenko remains in office, he is expected to stick with current government policies and cabinet composition and focus on campaigning for parliamentary elections in October which are expected to produce a highly fragmented parliament dominated by Poroshenko and Tymoshenko's blocks and several small parties in the middle, the analyst added.