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Hungry for change, Ukrainians tipped to elect comedian as president

2019-04-21T031005Z_1_LYNXNPEF3K022-OUSTP_RTROPTP_3_NEWS-US-UKRAINE-ELECTION
Ukrainians voted on Sunday in an election expected to thrust a comedian with no prior political experience and few detailed policies into the presidency of a nation at war and hungry for change.

At stake is the leadership of a country on the frontline of the West’s standoff with Russia following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and support for a pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

Surveys make Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who plays a fictitious president in a TV series, the runaway favorite to defeat incumbent Petro Poroshenko, whose popularity has been hurt by patchy efforts to halt corruption and sliding living standards.

Both men - who traded insults and accusations in a rowdy debate in a soccer stadium in Kiev on Friday - have pledged to keep Ukraine on a pro-Western course.

But a victory for Zelenskiy would be a dramatic departure for a country whose previous presidents since its 1991 independence have been experienced politicians, including three former prime ministers.

Exit polls are due at 1700 GMT.

Investors are seeking reassurances that whoever wins will accelerate reforms needed to attract foreign investment and keep the country in an International Monetary Fund program that has supported Ukraine through war, recession and a currency plunge.

“We want change in a better direction, because right now there is tension, people are irritated. We want peace, freedom and happiness,” said voter Zinaida Statnikova.

A smiling Zelenskiy turned up to vote dressed in a white T-shirt and jacket. “We have united Ukraine,” he said. No matter the result, “it will be a victory for the Ukrainian people”.

Poroshenko meanwhile attended an Orthodox service at Kiev’s gold-domed St Michael’s monastery, a member of a new national church that Poroshenko helped establish.

“It is very important to be guided by reason during the vote. Because it’s not funny. At first maybe it seems funny and fun, but it should not be painful later,” he said after voting.

Voter Egor Binkevych wants a candidate to at least try to tackle the issue of corruption. “More than anything I would like for the structure of our country to change, the whole system,” he said.

The 41-year-old Zelenskiy’s unorthodox campaign traded on the character he plays in the TV show, a scrupulously honest schoolteacher who becomes president by accident after an expletive-ridden rant about corruption goes viral.

His campaign relied on quirky social media posts and comedy gigs instead of traditional rallies and leafletting.

Zelenskiy has promised to fight corruption, a message that has resonated with Ukrainians fed up with the status quo in a country of 42 million people that is one of Europe’s poorest nearly three decades after breaking away from the Soviet Union.

He has also spoken of the need to try to find a way to end the war against pro-Russian separatists by holding wider Western-backed talks with President Vladimir Putin.
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