KIEV (AFP) – A comedian with no political experience won a landslide victory in Ukraine’s presidential election, drawing congratulations from global leaders while dealing a stunning rebuke to his country’s political establishment.
Volodymyr Zelensky, whose only previous political role was playing the president in a TV show, trounced incumbent Petro Poroshenko by taking 73.2 percent of the vote, according to nearly complete official results released early Monday.
Poroshenko garnered just 24.4 percent, losing to the 41-year-old comedian and actor across the country, with 85 percent of ballots counted after Sunday’s election.
It was an extraordinary outcome to a campaign that started as a joke but struck a chord with voters frustrated by social injustice, corruption and a war with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine that has claimed some 13,000 lives.
The star of the TV series “Servant of the People” will now take the helm of a country of 45 million people beset by challenges and having run on the vaguest of political platforms.
“I will never let you down,” Zelensky told jubilant supporters at his campaign headquarters where he was showered with glittering confetti.
“I can tell all post-Soviet countries: ‘Look at us! Everything is possible!’,” he declared.
The remark appeared aimed at neighbouring Russia, where Vladimir Putin has been in power for 20 years and many followed the Ukrainian election with keen interest.
Congratulations poured in from Europe and beyond, with French President Emmanuel Macron and Poland’s Andrzej Duda congratulating the Ukrainian president-elect by phone.
“You will now truly be the Servant of the People,” said British foreign minister Jeremy Hunt on Twitter, pledging London’s support.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and President of the European Council Donald Tusk said they looked forward to continuing support and cooperation.
“We congratulate President-elect Volodymyr Zelensky,” the US embassy in Ukraine said on Twitter.
Exit polls showed Mr Zelensky took 87 percent of the vote in eastern Ukraine and defeated Poroshenko even in the west, where the incumbent traditionally enjoyed strong support.
Mr Poroshenko, 53, said the results were clear and enough reason to “call my opponent and congratulate him”.
“I will leave office but I want to firmly stress – I will not quit politics,” Mr Poroshenko said in a speech at his campaign headquarters.
He also appealed to the international community to help safeguard Ukraine’s pro-Western course.
Observers say Mr Zelensky may seek to use his outsider status to try to improve ties with Moscow.
Mr Zelensky said he wanted to “reboot” Western-brokered peace talks that have so far failed to end the conflict.
Moscow said the vote result showed Ukrainians wanted “change”.
From Ukrainian-speaking regions in the west of the country to Russian-speaking territories in the war-torn east, many voters said they feared uncertainty but yearned for change.
Mr Zelensky supporters say only a fresh face can clean up Ukraine’s politics and end the separatist conflict.
But others doubt the showman will be able to take on the country’s influential oligarchs, negotiate with the likes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and stand up to Mr Putin.
The Ukrainian president has strong powers over defence, security and foreign policy but needs backing from parliament to push through reforms.
Mr Poroshenko’s faction has the most seats in the current legislature and new parliamentary polls are due in October.