Ukrainian comedian and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky casts his ballot at a polling station during Ukraine’s presidential election in Kiev on March 31. (Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images)

A comedian who plays the president on TV came out ahead in the first round of the Ukrainian presidential election on Sunday, according to exit polls, a sign of widespread discontent with the political establishment in one of Europe’s biggest countries.

Comedian Volodymyr Zelensky led the large field with close to one-third of the vote, according to an exit poll from a consortium of polling organizations. President Petro Poroshenko was in second place. Former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko was close behind, and it appeared that she and Poroshenko would be vying for runner-up as results came in.

No candidate will win more than half the vote, according to exit polls. That means Zelensky will face either Poroshenko or Tymoshenko in a runoff scheduled for April 21. 

The exit poll from the consortium showed Zelensky with 30.4 percent of the vote, Poroshenko with 17.8 percent and Tymoshenko with 14.2 percent. As of 2 a.m. Kiev time, the official vote count showed Zelensky with 29.5 percent, Poroshenko with 17 percent and Tymoshenko with 13.9 percent, with 9 percent of precincts reporting.

Zelensky’s strong showing reflected widespread disappointment over what many see as a lack of tangible change in the country after a pro-Western revolution five years ago. If he wins the runoff, the untested Zelensky will face challenges ranging from navigating economic doldrums to negotiating with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin. 

“We’re young people,” Zelensky said after the exit poll results came in. “To be honest, we don’t want to see the whole past in our future — the future of our country.” 

Thirty-nine candidates were listed on the ballot, but the race narrowed to three main contenders: Poroshenko, who is seeking a second five-year term; Tymoshenko, a former prime minister and political prisoner; and Zelensky, a popular comedian and political novice.

All three said they want to continue building closer ties to Western institutions such as the European Union. But the election put a spotlight on popular disdain for the political elite and the potential for continuing instability in one of Europe’s most geopolitically pivotal countries.

Polls had shown Zelensky, 41, to be the favorite going into election day. He has largely led opinion polling since he announced his candidacy on his TV variety show on New Year’s Eve. 

Balazs Jarabik, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the significance of the results so far was that Zelensky “held a commanding lead in every region, including western Ukraine.”

“This means that Zelensky has a chance to turn the second round into a referendum on Poroshenko’s rule — instead of as a vote against Putin, as Poroshenko wanted,” he said.

But Tymoshenko said she wasn’t ready to accept that result and released her own exit poll showing her in second place.

“I’m convinced that after a real count of the results, that after the collection of all the official results, the mafia that Poroshenko leads will not be in power,” she said after the polls closed.

Zelensky has burrowed into a deep vein of voter discontent over a sluggish economy, corruption and an unresolved war in the country’s east with Russian forces and Kremlin-backed rebels. Five years after the revolution, Russia continues to occupy the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, and the United Nations estimates that the war in the east has taken some 13,000 lives. 

“Today we have a new life for our country,” Zelensky said after he arrived at his polling station in Kiev, surrounded by a crush of journalists. “A new life begins, one that is normal, without corruption and without bribes.”

In a case of life imitating art — or in this case, Netflix — Zelensky’s only claim to presidential experience is that he plays a commander in chief in a popular television series, “Servant of the People.”

His character, Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko, is a simple but upright schoolteacher, who is unexpectedly catapulted to the presidency and tackles the country’s venal oligarch class.

Among Zelensky’s supporters, the show’s message is that honesty among politicians should trump all other considerations, and they see him as decent and corruption-free in real life.

“I like that he built his business without any government connections,” Vitaly Kyrnik, 37, a railroad worker, said at a performance of Zelensky’s comedy troupe, Kvartal 95, in Kiev on Friday.

“He’s a new person, young, with new views,” Kyrnik added. “If he can successfully lead Kvartal 95, I think he might do okay as president.”

Poroshenko, 53, owner of a confectionary company and one of the country’s richest men, resurrected his electoral prospects after having polled in the single digits earlier in his campaign. 

He has doubled down on patriotic themes, like promotion of the Ukrainian language over Russian, support of the military and the creation of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church. One of his early campaign slogans was “Either Poroshenko or Putin” — a not-so-subtle hint that an election victory for anyone else would mean a victory for the Russian leader. 

“This is a key point; this is the crossing of the Rubicon for not returning to the Soviet Union [and saying] ‘no’ to the Russian Empire,” Poroshenko said at his Kiev polling station Sunday.

But he remains vulnerable to accusations that he failed to live up to the expectations of the country’s revolution five years ago, which deposed a Kremlin-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovych, and raised hopes that corruption and powerful economic interests would finally be curtailed.

On Thursday, Poroshenko held a last campaign rally in the western city of Lviv, where he accused Zelensky and Tymoshenko of being controlled by Ukrainian billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky.

“He has fled abroad, but he simultaneously moves two figures on the election chessboard,” Poroshenko said, referring to Kolomoisky, who lives in Israel.

Kolomoisky, Tymoshenko and Zelensky deny any political connections to one another.

“God forbid that Tymoshenko or Zelensky is elected and gives us back to Russia,” said Svetlana Platonova, 56, a corporate event organizer who voted for Poroshenko on Sunday. “I’m embarrassed for the country because of Zelensky — a clown!”

Tymoshenko, 58, led in the polls at one point, but her campaign seemed to lose momentum in the last weeks. Some surveys place her even with Poroshenko.

“When we had a matriarchy on this earth, there was no war,” said Lyudmila Drannik, 78, a pensioner who voted for Tymoshenko. “We’ve known Tymoshenko for a long time now. She’s a strong person.”

Like Poroshenko, she is viewed as a fixture in the country’s political and economic establishment. She earned a fortune in the country’s gas industry in the 1990s, served twice as prime minister and ran for president twice before. She was also jailed by her rival Yanukovych in 2011 on charges widely seen as politically motivated.

Zelensky and Kvartal 95 held a final event in Kiev on Friday evening. The show is Zelensky’s version of a campaign rally, which he has performed across Ukraine the past month. As promised, he did not issue any overt political statements.

But Zelensky allowed himself a few campaign-worthy photo ops — at one point singing an uplifting song with children called to the stage while all flashed the victory sign. And he and his team managed to ridicule a host of politicians, including Poroshenko.

“Why does Poroshenko want a second term?” he asked, repeating a well-worn joke from earlier shows. “Because he doesn’t want a first [prison] term.”

Troianovski reported from Moscow.