Ukrainian 'clown' Zelensky leading polls ahead of presidential vote

Ukrainian 'clown' Zelensky leading polls ahead of presidential vote

KIEV - Volodymyr Zelensky has already been elected president of Ukraine once -- in a television series. Now the popular actor with no political experience has confounded his critics to lead opinion polls before the real presidential race.

Zelensky, a 41-year-old entertainer, has tapped into popular discontent with the political class and has largely relied on the internet to get his message across

The March 31 vote was supposed to be a battle between two of Ukraine's most experienced politicians: incumbent Petro Poroshenko and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

But around 20 percent of Ukrainians now say they plan to vote for comedian and film actor Zelensky, putting him several points ahead of his main rivals in opinion polls last week.

The 41-year-old entertainer has tapped into popular discontent with the political class and has largely relied on the internet to get his message across.

To some, his approach is reminiscent of the populist strategies that swept US President Donald Trump to power.

Supporters, however, see him as an alternative to an old guard that they say has never been able to follow through on promises to tackle corruption and improve living standards.

Poroshenko came to power in 2014 on the back of a pro-Europe, anti-graft popular uprising, while Tymoshenko was a face of the Orange Revolution that promised a new, fairer Ukraine -- in 2004.

"Zelensky is seen as a 'none of the above' candidate. Also he's fresh, he's modern, he's young, he's trendy," political analyst Vadym Karasyov told AFP.

"People are tired of (old) ideas and the usual politicians."

But Karasyov said there was a difference between using the actor's candidacy to protest against the political elite, and actually wanting him to take charge of the country.

Despite Zelensky's leading position in polls some experts say his bid remains a long shot because many of his supporters are young and will not bother turning out on election day.

There are also a record number of candidates in the race, adding to the vote's unpredictability.

- 'Servant of the People' -

Zelensky's critics point to the vagueness of his manifesto, the main points of which were chosen following a public vote on social media.

They question the ability of a man whose political experience is limited to a role in a show called "Servant of the People".

If elected president, Zelensky will be tasked with tackling a conflict with Russia-backed separatists, a hostile Kremlin, as well as widespread poverty and corruption.

Foreign diplomats have privately raised questions about his candidacy.

"He was too general -- no concrete ideas. It was frightening if you consider that he is a presidential candidate," a Western diplomatic source told AFP following a meeting with Zelensky.

"He lacks knowledge, but is very keen to learn," said reformist MP Sergiy Leshchenko, who also attended another briefing.

At times in his campaign, fiction and reality have become blurred.

"President Servant of the People. Coming soon," read posters on the streets of Kiev -- promoting both his presidential bid and a new series of the show that is coming out in March.

"I entered the race for president of Ukraine, after which people called me a clown. I am a clown and I'm very proud of it," he has said in a Facebook message.

Like the other frontrunners, Zelensky says he wants the country to maintain a pro-Western trajectory.

- 'Puppet' -

Zelensky comes from the industrial city of Krivy Rig in central Ukraine. A father-of-two, he has a law degree but made his career on stage.

He is artistic director of a studio theatre called Kvartal 95, reportedly part of a business conglomerate that has had business dealings in Russia.

An investigative report on Ukrainian television in January accused Zelensky of continued commercial relations with Russia, a highly sensitive topic as tensions flare between the neighbours.

Following the TV report, Zelensky confirmed he had shares in a Cypriot company that is owned by a Russian group and promised to sell them.

Zelensky's opponents have accused him of being a "puppet" of oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, Poroshenko's billionaire foe though the actor denies this.

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