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Ukraine's presidential election begins, studies show comic candidate who leads the polls



Ukrainians cast polls on Sunday in a presidential departure that had the incumbent struggle to avert a strong challenge by a comedian who condemns corruption and plays the role of president in a television sitcom.

Priority polls prior to the election showed 53-year-old President Petro Poroshenko behind Behind Comic actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy, reflecting public dismay with Ukraine's endemic corruption, a moribund economy and a five-year struggle against Russia-backed rebels in the east.

Zelenskiy, 41, received twice as many votes as Poroshenko in the first round vote three weeks ago. Like his sitcom character, a teacher squeezed into the presidency after a video of him blasting corruption went viral. He focused his campaign on combating graft and drove the angle of public distrust of Ukraine's political elite.

Poroshenko, a billionaire candy magnate, before joining, has relied on traditional political childhood abuse through sympathetic television stations that largely cover his appearances.

Zelenskiy kept away from the campaign track and avoided interviews. He campaigned mainly on Instagram, where he has 3.7 million followers. After Zelenskiy voted on Sunday, the police gave him a court notice to refrain from holding his vote away from cameras, an administrative offense punished by a $ 30 fine.

Candidates dealt with hard mutual criticism and jockeyed for dominance. Wrapping the campaign with a sentimental moment, both men fell on their knees during a debate at the country's largest sports stadium Friday to request forgiveness of those who lost relatives on the eastern combat front.

COMEDIAN CAN UNSEAT UKRAINE'S POROSHENKO IN THIS SUNDAY PRESIDENTIAL RUNOFF

  moves Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko as he speaks to the media when his wife Maryna stands beside him at a polling station under second round presidential elections in Kiev, Ukraine, Sunday, April 21, 2019. Top issues in the election have been corruption, the economy and how to end the conflict with Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine. ()

President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko moves as he speaks to the media when his wife Maryna stands beside him at a polling station during the second round of presidential elections in Kiev, Ukraine, on Sunday, April 21, 2019. Top questions in The election has been corruption, the economy and how to end the conflict with Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine. ()
(AP Foto / Efrem Lukatsky)

Millions of Ukrainians living in the rebellious east and in Russia associated with the Crimea cannot vote. Russia seized Crimea in 2014 in a move that Ukraine and almost the world consider illegal. The battle in the east that broke out the same year after the Russian annexation killed more than 13,000 people.

Poroshenko campaign on the same promise he made when he was elected in 2014: leading 42 million people in the EU and NATO. However, the goals have been staggering among Ukraine's economic problems, profound corruption and eastern struggle. A visa-free agreement with the EU created emigration of millions of skilled workers for better living conditions elsewhere in Europe.

In a jab at his rival, the president warned voters that "it might be fun at first, but pain may come later."

Poroshenko stressed the need to "defend the results from the last five years" and note the creation of a new Ukrainian Orthodox Church, independent of the Patriarchate of Moscow, a skis he fought.

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But Poroshenko's message fell flat with many voters struggling to survive on lean wages and pay rising utility bills.

"We have become poor under Poroshenko and need to save on buying food and clothing," said 55-year-old sales consultant Irina Fakhova. "We've got enough of them to be mired in corruption and fill their pockets and treat us like fools."

Poroshenko denies any link to an alleged contempt scheme involving one of his firms and a top union.

  Ukrainian comedian and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy shows his vote before reconciling his poll at a polling station during the second round of presidential elections in Kiev, Ukraine, Sunday, April 21, 2019. The key issues in the election have been corruption, the economy and how to will end the conflict with Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine. (AP Photo / Vadim Ghirda)

Ukraine's comedy and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy shows his vote before voting in a polling station during the second round of presidential elections in Kiev, Ukraine, Sunday, April 21, 2019. Top issues in the election have been corruption, the economy and how to end the conflict with Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine. (AP Photo / Vadim Ghirda)

Zelenskiy, coming from Ukraine's most Russian-speaking east, has opposed Poroshenko's push for a bill that would ban the Russian language and scoff at the creation of the new church as a campaign stunt.

Speaking to reporters, he said his campaign has already helped unite the country.

As Poroshenko obliged Zelenskiy to hold Ukraine on its western course, but said that the country should only join NATO if voters approved them by referendum. He said his top priority would be direct talks with Russia to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine.

Zelenskiy's image has been shadowed by his admission that he had commercial interests in Russia through a holding company and by his business ties to self-exiled billionaire businessman Ihor Kolomoyskyi. A Poroshenko archrival owns Kolomoyskyi the television station that aired the sitcom, which the actor recorded as well as his comedy show.

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But his ties to Kolomoyskyi have not sullied his picture enough to throw him as a corrupt candidate in the voters' eyes.

"I grew up under the old politicians and have only seen empty promises, lies and corruption," said Lyudmila Potrebko, a 22-year-old computer programmer who cast his vote for Zelenskiy. "It's time to change it."


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