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A comedian could be about to win Ukraine's presidential election

Key Points
  • Ukraine's presidential election is to be held this weekend and an actor and comedian who played the country's leader in a hit TV show is in with a good chance of winning, according to experts.
  • Volodymyr Zelensky leads public opinion polls in Ukraine ahead of the first round of voting on Sunday March 31.
  • He's ahead of rivals Yulia Tymoshenko and incumbent Petro Poroshenko in what has become a three-way race.
Volodymyr Zelensky candidate for the post of President of Ukraine during the concert program of the studio 'Kvartal 95'.
Pacific Press | LightRocket | Getty Images

Ukraine's presidential election is to be held this weekend and an actor and comedian who played the country's leader in a hit TV show is in with a good chance of winning, according to experts.

Volodymyr Zelensky leads public opinion polls in Ukraine ahead of the first round of voting on Sunday March 31. He's ahead of rivals Yulia Tymoshenko and incumbent Petro Poroshenko in what has become a three-way race.

A newcomer to the political establishment in Ukraine, Zelensky's nearest experience of national leadership is from playing the part of the Ukrainian president in popular TV show "Servant of the People," which gained unexpected international popularity and was picked up by Netflix.

The latest opinion poll by BDM of around 5,000 people conducted last week showed anti-establishment candidate Zelensky ahead of the pack with 25.7 percent of the vote. Tymoshenko is seen in second place with 18.8 percent of the vote and Poroshenko with 12.7 percent.

Zelensky is expected to remain in the lead in the first round of voting but is not expected to get the absolute majority that would enable him to win the election outright. He is thus expected to face Poroshenko or Tymoshenko in the runoff on April 21. There is a record total of 39 candidates in the race, even after several of them withdrew their candidacy to support instead those in with a chance of winning.

Joker in the pack

The comedian-turned-politician is doing surprisingly well in the polls in a country where the public is fed up with corruption, and the slow pace of reforms under the Poroshenko administration.

Zelensky's status as a political novice and "outsider" status, coupled with an anti-elite stance and social media savvy campaign strategy has helped him to attract voters (particularly the young) who are disaffected and disappointed with the current five-year-old administration — itself a product of political upheaval and revolution in 2014 after the tumultuous ousting of then President Viktor Yanukovych.

Zelensky's recruitment of former Minister of Finance Oleksandr Danylyuk and former Minister of Economy Aivaras Abromavicius as his advisors (both of whom resigned under the government of Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman) has helped Zelensky "to redress the perceived lack of economic expertise and plan somewhat in case he wins the presidential race," Otilia Dhand, senior vice president at Teneo Intelligence, said in a note Wednesday.

Game changer

The former ministers are both known as reform-minded, pro-Western, anti-corruption politicians and their support for Zelenksy, as well as the endorsement of a leading anti-corruption activist, Serhiy Leshchenko are expected to only boost Zelensky's credibility among voters.

Timothy Ash, senior emerging markets strategist at Bluebay Asset Management, said that the former ministers "coming out for Zelensky could well be a game changer."

"This could mark Zelensky out as candidate for reform/change/youth. Poroshenko is the candidate for the status quo/security and stability. Tymoshenko more for older, more conservative electorate with populist tone," he said in an emailed note Friday. "I think Zelensky wins," Ash added.

Poisoned chalice?

Becoming president of Ukraine is no laughing matter at a time when its economy is struggling and there appears to have been a fall back on anti-corruption measures. Ukraine's domineering neighbor Russia is also a constant worry for the government after its 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for a pro-Russian uprising in eastern Ukraine.

A financial crisis after Russian intervention in the country led Ukraine to request a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2014. It received $17 billion and the aid was conditional on Ukraine following a program of economic and structural reforms, including reducing the budget deficit, increasing gas prices (a controversial move) and adopting anti-corruption measures.

In December 2018, the IMF approved a further $3.9 billion loan for Ukraine to stabilize the economy and help it pay its debts amid accusations of sluggish reforms in the country. The Fund warned then that further progress on anti-corruption reforms and privatization was needed to help attract investment and improve the business climate.

In January, the Fund's country report on Ukraine stated that "efforts to create a more dynamic, open, and competitive economy have fallen short of expectations, and the economy still faces important challenges." In its last World Economic Outlook report in October, the IMF predicted that Ukraine's economy would grow 2.7 percent in 2019, down from an earlier prediction of 3.3 percent.

It should be noted that accusations of corruption have tarnished all three of the main candidates in the runup to the election, as well as allegations of dirty tricks during campaigning.

Zelensky is accused of being the puppet of controversial oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky who owns the TV channel that Zelensky's comedy shows (made by Zelensky's production company Kvartal-95 Studio) have appeared on. The oligarch has denied that he financially supports Zelensky, and indeed rival candidate Tymoshenko.

Incumbent Poroshenko has been accused of not doing enough to tackle corruption, although he has moved to salvage an anti-corruption law that was thrown out by the country's constitutional court in February. The court's move was seen as potentially jeopardizing Ukraine's financial relationship with the IMF.

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