KIEV – A comedian whose political experience is limited to playing the president on TV vowed to tackle Ukraine’s corruption, as he voted Sunday in the first stage of a presidential election he is tipped to win.
Actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s bid began as a long shot but he has leapfrogged establishment politicians amid public anger over graft and stagnating living standards.
“A new life is beginning, a good life, without corruption, without bribes,” the 41-year-old told journalists as he voted with his wife at a Kiev polling station.
If elected, the entertainer will take the reins of a country fighting Russia-backed separatists in its east and struggling to recover from an economic crisis.
Incumbent Petro Poroshenko was vying with former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to face Zelenskiy in a run-off in April, according to final opinion polls.
A recent survey put them neck and neck at around 17 percent, though another showed Poroshenko — who amassed a vast fortune in the chocolate business before being elected leader in 2014 — pulling ahead of ally-turned-foe Tymoshenko to make the second round.
Zelenskiy, the star of a political comedy series called “Servant of the People” that returned for its third season this past week, had more than 25 percent support in final surveys.
In polling stations across Ukraine, voters expressed dissatisfaction with the candidates and many said they were opting for what they saw as the least of three evils.
“I’m voting for anyone apart from Poroshenko. I don’t believe him, he cheated us,” said 40-year-old housewife Olga, who had come to a polling station in the western city of Lviv with her young daughter.
“I’m just going to go into the booth and decide who to vote for. I just don’t know. Definitely not for Zelenskiy,” said Irina, a 35-year-old manicurist in central Kiev.
In the eastern city of Mariupol, near the frontline of the separatist conflict that has cost 13,000 lives over five years, soldiers were among those casting their ballots.
The war is “the main question for everyone,” said 22-year-old soldier Sergiy, without specifying who he was voting for. “The country is tired of this situation, people are tired.”
Casting his vote in central Kiev, Poroshenko said he regretted mud slinging during the campaign but praised the “well prepared” and “secure” election.
Security services said armed special forces officers had been deployed in towns and cities across the country on polling day.
There are a record 39 candidates on the ballot paper — which is more than 80 cm long — but only the three frontrunners have a realistic chance of progressing to a run-off vote.
All three have said they will keep Ukraine on the European course it has charted since a 2014 revolution forced pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych from office.
The popular uprising was followed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Poroshenko was elected after he pledged to tackle graft, align Ukraine with the West and end the separatist fighting.
But the conflict is grinding on, corruption is rife and the country is struggling to recover from an economic crisis that began in 2014.
Zelenskiy, meanwhile, has been criticized for the vagueness of his manifesto, the key pledges of which were chosen following a public vote on social media.
The entertainer has eschewed rallies and interviews in favor of playing gigs with his comedy troupe up to the final days of campaigning.
But supporters say only a brand new face can clean up the murky politics of one of the poorest nations in Europe.
Some accuse Zelenskiy of acting as a front for the interests of oligarch Igor Kolomoysky, who owns the channel that broadcasts the entertainer’s shows, but he denies any political links.
Tymoshenko — who came to international prominence during the 2004 Orange Revolution and is a divisive figure in Ukraine — has focused on the cost of living.
She has promised to cut consumer gas prices in half and boost pensions as she appeals to an older base during her third bid for the presidency.
“Today we have a chance to change everything,” Tymoshenko said as she cast her vote in the capital
Exit polls are expected when polling stations close at 8 p.m. local time. First preliminary results were expected several hours later.
Barring a shock result in which one candidate crosses the 50 percent threshold in the first round, a run-off is to be held on April 21.