Comedian Volodymyr Zelensky is projected to top the first round of Ukraine‘s presidential election, but his support is well short of the majority needed to win the presidency.
According to an exit poll following Sunday’s vote, Zelensky has secured about 30.4 percent, followed by incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, with 17.8 percent.
Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was third with 14.2 percent.
The poll, which was conducted by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology and the Razumkov Center, was based on nearly 18,000 responses to questioning at some 400 polling places as of 6pm (15:00 GMT), two hours before voting stations closed.
A runoff between the top two candidates in the race will take place on April 21.
Speaking to supporters at his campaign headquarters after the exit poll outcome was announced, Zelensky said: “This is just a first step towards a great victory.”
Ukraine election – Comedian more popular than President Poroshenko (2:43)
The comedian, who stars in a TV sitcome about a teacher who becomes president, is a political newcomer.
Like the popular character he plays, Zelenskiy, 41, made corruption a focus of his candidacy. He proposed a lifetime ban on holding public office for anyone convicted of graft.
Sunday’s vote was the war-torn country’s first time since the so-called Revolution of Dignity brought Poroshenko in power in 2014.
Corruption, Russia, EU
The 53-year-old incumbent, who was elected with almost 55 percent of votes in 2014, seems to have failed to rally his electorate despite his efforts to be seen as a passionate fighter for the country’s territorial unity as well as the champion of Ukraine’s dream of integration with the European Union and NATO.
Over the last five years, he has reinforced the Ukrainian army and ratified the Association Agreement with the European Union, the document that enabled Ukrainians to trade with and travel to Europe without restrictions.
The incumbent president also secured the independence of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church from its Russian counterpart. But he failed to rid the country of corruption or recover money stolen from Ukraine’s coffers before he came to power.
|Boriak, 37, lamented the absence of candidates caring about female rights [Oksana Parafeniuk/Al Jazeera]|
At a polling station in central Kiev, Sviatoslav Yurash, a 23-year-old working for Zelensky’s election campaign team, said he was backing the comic because “he will be pro-market, pro-Ukraine, pro-Europe, pro-NATO”.
Tetiana Boriak, 37, said she voted for Poroshenko because she believed he was the only candidate who would resist Russia.
“I do not think that other candidates will be able to negotiate with [Russia’s President Vladimir] Putin. Poroshenko is the only one who will resist the way I think is correct,” she said.
The elections took place against a backdrop of war in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk region, with government forces fighting Russia-backed separatists that has killed more than 13,000 people.
The conflict followed Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 which in turn came after Ukraine overthrew Moscow-backed leader Viktor Yanukovich earlier that year.
Several millions of the approximately 35 million eligible voters are unable or unwilling to cast their ballots in the occupied territories.
Poroshenko was elected with almost 55 percent of votes in 2014 [Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters]
Oleksandr Bondarenko, a 28-year-old software developer, said she had voted for Tymoshenko “because with her in the second round, we will have a better chance of defeating Poroshenko”.
“This vote is very important for us because President Poroshenko has to leave. A lot of issues came up with his policies, especially with corruption,” said Bondarenko.
Olena Peftiiva, 53, came to the polling station not only to cast her ballot but also to make sure that her deceased husband’s ballot is not used for rigging the elections.
“My husband has been dead for 10 years. But his election registration confirmation arrived at my address. This has not happened during previous polls. I came to the polling station to make sure that his ballot is destroyed,” she said.
Tamila Varshalomidze contributed to this report from Kiev. Follow her on Twitter @tamila87v