KIEV – Ukrainians were heading to the polls on Sunday for an election in which incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, who pulled the country away from Russia’s influence, was seeking another term.
But polls had comedian Volodymyr Zelensky as the favorite. According to one published on March 28 by Rating, he could pick up 20.6 percent of the vote, while Poroshenko looked to take 13 percent and veteran politician Yulia Timoshenko was slated to take 12.9 percent.
VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY, A COMEDIAN WHO GOT SERIOUS
The favorite told EFE over the course of the campaign that he is “disappointed” with those who have been in power all these years.
From a surprise candidate to becoming the leader in all the polls, his media activism has turned him into a flag-bearer in the fight against corruption, the electorate’s main concern.
At 41, he is the television star of the satirical show “Servant of the People,” in which he plays a rural teacher who becomes president after one of his heated rants against corruption goes viral.
The actor, who comes from an industrial city in southeastern Ukraine, studied Law but never went into it. At school, he was drawn to the arts.
These days, he presents some of Ukraine’s most popular TV shows and he has amassed a fortune with the film studio Kvartal 95.
Zelenski unfurled an intense social media campaign in the run up to the election, with several protest videos weaving fiction and reality. He even campaigned with a clown’s nose.
He has come to know how to direct Ukrainians’ discontent, especially youths and in the southeast, the area that was hit hardest by the conflict with Russia.
For the actor, mediation on the part of the United States is crucial to securing peace.
Although he is sympathetic to European values, he does not think Ukraine is ready to join the European Union (EU) yet.
POROSHENKO, THE SAVIOR OF THE FATHERLAND
The incumbent head of state and chocolate magnate is eyeing re-election after five years during which he has had to deal with the loss of Crimea, the conflict in the east and growing tensions with Russia.
And the economy is on the brink of collapse.
“There are many candidates, but there’s only one president,” is Poroshenko’s electoral slogan.
He took power on the back of the Euromaidan revolution of 2013-14.
But his mandate was born under the burden of a conflict in the pro-Russian east that has limited his room for maneuvers.
Once the Minsk agreements were signing in Feb. 2015, Poroshenko put in a huge effort to revitalize the armed forces’ morale, something that was lost during the conflict.
For that, he relied on the support of the US and NATO.
A naval incident in November 2018 that saw three Ukrainian vessels being fired upon by Russia in the Kerch Strait exposed the country’s fragility in the defense arena, as well as the Kremlin’s willingness to punish any mistakes on the part of Ukraine.
Poroshenko was also seeking Ukraine’s integration into the EU in 2023, just before the end of the next presidential term.
The unfavorable economic situation could cost him votes, but what could hurt his chances of re-election is rampant corruption, which has also caused concern among members of the EU.
YULIA TIMOSHENKO, THE STALWART
“The only man in Ukrainian politics,” former President Leonid Kuchma has said of Timoshenko, hailing the courage and resilience of this woman, who at 58 seeks to become the next head of state.
She has been compared to the UK’s late prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, referred to as the “princess of gas” as well as an “icon of the orange revolution.”
Timoshenko has been prime minister twice, a presidential candidate twice, and imprisoned twice over allegations of corruption and abuse of power.
She was born to a Latvian father and a Ukrainian mother in the central city of Dniepropetrovsk, now known as Dnipro, where she studied economy.
In 1997, she began her political career, winning a seat in the Ukrainian parliament with over 90 percent of the vote. From there, she was able to implement reform.
In June 1999 she helped establish the Batkivshchyna (All-Ukrainian Union “Fatherland”) party, of which she became the leader.
That same year, she became the vice prime minister for energy and coal mining, a post she held until 2001 when she was dismissed over disagreements with President Kuchma.
Following that, she was arrested and held in preventative custody for 42 days on allegations of gas smuggling and tax evasion. A court found her not guilty.
In 2004, she was the force behind the so-called “orange revolution,” which forced a re-run election and got her to the front of the government, albeit only for eight months. She became prime minister again in 2007 and tried for the presidency in the 2010 election.
The prosecutor opened a criminal case against her again in 2011 and she was found guilty of abuse of power and sentenced to seven years in prison.
On Feb. 22, 2014, the day the popular revolution took control over Kiev, she was released and returned to the world of politics.