KHARKIV, Ukraine—Stepping into the voting booth, Tatiana Ovcharova wasn’t quite sure who she was going to vote for, even after working as an election observer for the campaign of Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky. But now that the comedian-turned-politician has a strong lead heading into the second round of voting, Ovcharova thinks she made the right choice.
“He may have bitten off more than he can chew,” Ovcharova said. “But if it is a choice between a dishonest person and an inexperienced but smart person, I would choose the inexperienced person.”
Ukraine’s presidential runoff on April 21 will pit the political newcomer against incumbent President Petro Poroshenko. Zelensky scored a double-digit lead over Poroshenko in the first ballot, reflecting widespread anti-establishment sentiment and dissatisfaction with Ukraine’s political class.
In a popular Ukrainian television show, Zelensky plays a school teacher who becomes the Ukrainian president after a fiery speech about government corruption goes viral online. As the third season of the series debuted in March ahead of the election, it has been at times difficult to differentiate advertising for the show from political campaigning.
Zelensky’s platform has been short on policy details, but his youthful charisma and irreverent, anti-elite messaging have resonated with many voters. However, his connection to Ihor Kolomosky, a powerful Ukrainian oligarch who owns the television channel that airs his series, has raised suspicion that he would not be as independent-minded as his television counterpart.
Some Ukrainians also worry that Zelensky’s political inexperience could leave the country vulnerable to manipulation by Russia, which has been locked in a de facto war with Ukraine since 2014.
Aleksandr Khriplivyi, a veteran of the war in Ukraine’s southeast and a Poroshenko supporter, said he approaches the election more seriously than those who chose to vote for the comedian.
“It is a choice of civilizations—Europe or Asia,” said Khriplivyi. “Will we either continue until the end of this conflict or we will capitulate. I am afraid that someone else will make a deal with Putin. Poroshenko may not be ideal, but he is the best choice we have.”
Zelensky has said that he is open to negotiating with Putin over the conflict in the southeast if elected president.
As an animator who was hired to manage a startup in Kharkiv despite lack of management experience, Ovcharova doesn’t think Zelensky’s background is a disadvantage. She also points to the path of another famous politician.
“We watched a film about Ronald Reagan, and Zelensky did the voiceover,” she said. “Reagan was also an actor. I think there are some parallels going on.”
She added that she sees Zelensky’s appeal to young people as his biggest asset.
“A lot of people see themselves in him, as a person who doesn’t have a rich father or mother, who rose through his own strength,” she said. “He provides motivation for young people.”
Poroshenko has campaigned on his record as president—namely, the establishment of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, his support for soldiers fighting in the armed conflict, and the promotion of the Ukrainian language over Russian. But he has also been criticized for a slowing pace of reforms, the rising price of gas, allegations of corruption, and a difficult economic reality, especially among pensioners who have struggled to make ends meet in Europe’s poorest country.
‘A Sign of Democracy’
Ahead of the vote, some candidates had expressed concern that the election could be riddled with fraud, vote-buying, or violence. Instead, election observers noted that the process was peaceful and saw a relatively low number of election violations.
Kateryna Minkina, a long-term observer for OPORA, a civic election monitoring organization that has participated in the last several national elections, said that violations were mostly limited to confusion among poll attendants over recently introduced identification documents and voters who photographed their completed ballots, which is illegal under Ukrainian law.
A dizzying 39 candidates appeared on the election ballot, which stretched nearly 32 inches long. Among them was Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister who had topped opinion polls for much of 2018 but failed to secure enough votes to make it to the second round.
In a region where election results are all but assured ahead of a vote in many countries, Ukraine’s unpredictable political landscape stands out. A majority of Ukrainians voted for candidates other than Zelensky and Poroshenko, meaning that more than half of the electorate is still up for grabs in the second round.
“Since we still don’t know who will become president, I think that maybe it is a sign of democracy,” Minkina said. “That is the main thing we were standing for during the revolution. I hope there will be more positive examples in the next few years. There were not a lot of reforms that were implemented after Maidan [the 2014 revolution that resulted in the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych], but at least they were launched. That they proceed depends on this election.”