Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images(KIEV, Ukraine) — Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a comedian with no political experience who plays the president on TV, has won Ukraine’s presidential election in a landslide, according to a national exit poll. The poll showed Zelenskiy receiving 73 percent of the vote, sweeping away Ukraine’s incumbent president, Petro Poroshenko, who conceded defeat on Sunday.
At a campaign party at a bar in Kiev, packed with hundreds of journalists, Zelenskiy declared victory. As the exit poll’s results were announced, confetti was shot into the air and Zelenskiy thanked his campaign volunteers, saying they had “protected Ukraine”.
The result places a political novice at the head of Ukraine, one of the poorest countries in Europe, on a fault-line in the stand-off between the West and Russia. Ukraine is still locked in a war with Russia that has seen 13,000 people killed since 2014.
Zelenskiy’s victory comes on the back of deep dissatisfaction among Ukrainians with their political establishment, weariness over the war. He ran promising to fight corruption and to upend that political elite, which is viewed as corrupt and indifferent to the concerns of ordinary Ukrainians.
At polling stations on Sunday, few voters expressed great affection for Zelenskiy, saying instead they supported him as an agent of change.
“I am for a new face,” said Tatiana Zakharenko, 50, an economist voting in central Kiev. “We need a change.”
The vote was a resounding rejection of Poroshenko, a 53-year-old billionaire confectionary tycoon who came to power on the back of mass protests in 2014 that toppled Ukraine’s then-Russian-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych. Poroshenko had campaigned as a wartime leader, promoting himself as a defender of Ukrainian identity against Russia and warning that Zelenskiy’s inexperience meant a win for Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Poroshenko, though, was unable to overcome widespread perceptions that he has failed to tackle entrenched corruption and continued Ukraine’s tradition of using power to enrich his associates.
In a country where politics is a byword for corruption and self-dealing, some said that Zelenskiy’s lack of experience in politics was actually a plus.
“On the one hand, it’s not the best president for me, but at least he has no experience in corruption or all the things that our politicians have,” Anna Dysheleva, a marketing executive, told ABC News after voting with her young son.
Few know, however, what that change will mean in practice. Zelenskiy has campaigned on almost no detailed policies and has avoided the media, refusing interviews. The last interview he gave was to a journalist who won a ping pong competition on the night of his victory in the first round. On Sunday, the same competition was running at the victory party.
Instead, Zelenskiy largely campaigned as a version of his on-screen persona, and held stand-up shows instead of political rallies. In his show, “Servant of the People,” he plays a schoolteacher who is catapulted into the presidency when his rant against corruption goes viral. Once president, he eschews the traditional perks of his office and battles oligarchs who normally direct politics in Ukraine.
Both candidates have promised to maintain Ukraine’s pro-European course. Critics of Zelenskiy, though, fear his more moderate stance could see the country slide back into Russia’s orbit.
Poroshenko, who campaigned as a wartime leader, warned that Zelenskiy will be unable to stand up to Putin.
Tatiana Zakharenko, 50, an economist, said she had voted despite her reservations about Zelenskiy.
“I’m for a new face, for the young,” she said. “We need a change.”
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