Ukraine’s presidential election on Sunday will pit image against experience, with polls suggesting TV comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy heading for an overwhelming victory against President Petro Poroshenko.
Poroshenko has held the office for nearly five years — while Zelenskiy has played the role on television for more than three.
A look at the two contenders to lead Ukraine’s 42 million people:
Zelenskiy, a 41-year-old comic actor, is best known for his TV portrayal of a schoolteacher who becomes president after a video of him denouncing corruption goes viral. The name of the show, “Servant of the People,” became the name of his party when he announced his candidacy in January.
Like his TV character, the real-life Zelenskiy has focused his campaign strongly on corruption. Although criticized as having a vague platform, Zelenskiy has made specific proposals, including removing immunity for the president, parliament members and judges, and a lifetime ban on holding public office for anyone convicted of corruption. He also calls for a tax amnesty under which someone holding hidden assets would declare them, be taxed at 5% and face no other measures.
He supports Ukraine’s eventual membership in NATO, but only if the country were to approve this in a referendum.
Zelenskiy has proposed that direct talks with Russia are necessary to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where fighting with Russia-backed separatist rebels has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014. The Kremlin denies involvement there and says it is an internal matter. Zelenskiy says Russia-annexed Crimea must be returned to Ukraine and compensation paid.
His campaign has relied on social media rather than traditional rallies, leading Poroshenko to sneer that he is a “virtual candidate.” His flair for showmanship have raised eyebrows — he has proposed that both he and Poroshenko should take drug tests ahead of a debate.
Zelenskiy’s image has been shadowed by his admission that he had commercial interests in Russia through a holding company, and by persistent speculation about links with oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi, who owns the television station that airs “Servant of the People.”
A Ukrainian court on Thursday ruled that the nationalization of a bank once owned by Kolomoyskyi was illegal, leading to new concern about Zelenskiy’s possible ties to him.
Poroshenko, the incumbent, came to power in 2014 with the image of a “good oligarch.” The bulk of his fortune came from a seemingly innocuous source, the chocolate-maker Roshen, hence his nickname “The Chocolate King.”
He promised to divest himself of the whole business upon becoming president.
Five years later, there’s little sweetness left in his image. He hasn’t sold the chocolate business. Critics denounce him for having done little to combat Ukraine’s endemic corruption. The war with Russia-backed separatists in the east grinds on with no clear strategy for ending it. And while his economic reforms may have pleased international lenders, they’ve left millions of Ukrainians wondering if they can find the money to pay their utilities bills.
After his weak performance in the election’s first round, in which Zelenskiy got nearly twice as many votes, Poroshenko said he had taken voters’ criticism to heart. He has since made some strong moves, including the long-awaited creation of an anti-corruption court. He also ordered the dismissal of the governor of the corruption-plagued Odessa region, and fired the deputy head of foreign intelligence who reportedly has vast real estate holdings in Russia.
Poroshenko has positioned himself as a leader who will stand up to Russia: a campaign billboard showed him staring down Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The 53-year-old Poroshenko has scored some significant goals for Ukraine’s national identity and its desire to move out of Russia’s influence.
He signed an association agreement with the European Union — which predecessor Viktor Yanukovych turned away from, setting off the protests that eventually drove him out of office. Ukrainians now can travel visa-free to the European Union, a significant perk. He has also pushed relentlessly for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to be recognized as self-standing rather than just a branch of the Russian church.