Behind him, polls show, are the two erstwhile favorites with long political résumés: incumbent Petro Poroshenko and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. They are expected to be in a down-to-the-wire battle for second place to face Zelensky in the April 21 runoff vote.
The country’s scrambled political landscape on the eve of the election reflects Ukraine’s rocky road since mass protests toppled a Moscow-friendly president five years ago.
All three leading candidates say they want to continue deepening Ukraine’s ties to Western institutions such as the European Union. But domestic discontent over a weak economy, war and corruption in the entrenched political class has spurred many voters to spurn Poroshenko and Tymoshenko.
“We have a choice between ‘stable but bad’ or a future where things could be better,” said Elena Velikaya, a 19-year-old student in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital. “Everything is bad right now. With Zelensky, maybe it will be better. We know Poroshenko. We know Tymoshenko.”
Zelensky does not openly embrace the type of nativist rhetoric that has catapulted to office other entertainers turned politicians such as President Trump and Italy’s deputy prime minister and interior minister, Matteo Salvini.
But Zelensky does represent wider political trends in recent years that have elevated outsiders over establishment candidates.
Poroshenko has tried to use the war against Russian-backed separatists in the east and Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea to whip up voter support in his favor. He has touted his support of a Ukrainian Orthodox Church independent of Moscow, his investment in the military and his promotion of the Ukrainian language over Russian, which is widely spoken in Ukraine.
“Either Poroshenko or Putin,” said a campaign slogan unveiled by the Ukrainian president in January.
But many voters aren’t buying it.
Offering few specifics, Zelensky has promised to sit down with Russian President Vladimir Putin and negotiate an end to the five-year war, which the United Nations says has claimed some 13,000 lives. Zelensky, a native Russian speaker who hails from Ukraine’s southeast, has called for a campaign to win back the hearts and minds of people living in separatist-occupied territory.
And while Poroshenko has said that he’d work to return Crimea to Ukrainian control “as soon as possible” after the elections, Zelensky has sounded a more pragmatic note.
“You and I know when Crimea will return — when there’s a change of leadership in Russia,” Zelensky said in a recent television interview.
Alina Boyko, a 26-year-old cafe owner in Kiev, said fatigue with the war was one reason she would likely vote for Zelensky.
“Poroshenko hasn’t solved this problem. Everything is just continuing,” she said of the war. “With Poroshenko, it definitely won’t end. At least with Zelensky, there will be a chance.”
Surveys show that Ukrainian disenchantment with their political system has only grown since the country’s pro-Western revolution in 2014. Just 9 percent of Ukrainian residents have confidence in their government, according to a Gallup World Poll published this month — the lowest level measured by Gallup anywhere in the world. The poll found that only 12 percent of Ukrainians believe in the honesty of their elections, and 91 percent see widespread corruption in government.
Zelensky channels that discontent in his popular sitcom, “Servant of the People,” which began airing its third season this week. He plays a humble schoolteacher whose off-the-cuff anti-corruption rant is filmed surreptitiously by a student and goes viral, resulting in his being elected president.
Zelensky’s character takes on Ukraine’s oligarchs and vested interests — and the candidate has promised to do the same in real life. The synergy is such that his real-life campaign videos include clips from “Servant of the People.”
In this week’s episode, referring to the presidency, a teacher asks his class: “What’s better, honest and not experienced, or experienced and greedy?”
The other front-runners in the election seem to be real-life examples of the political establishment that Zelensky promises to take on.
Poroshenko, the incumbent, is hoping for a second five-year term. He owns Ukraine’s largest chocolate producer — hence the nickname the “Chocolate King” — and served in numerous government positions before becoming president after the revolution.
Tymoshenko, who earned her fortune in the country’s energy sector (earning her the moniker the “Gas Princess”), has twice served as prime minister and twice ran for president. In 2011, she was jailed on charges — widely seen as politically motivated — for abuse of power while prime minister. She was released after the revolution in February 2014.
Although Zelensky holds a comfortable lead — different polls give him varying percentages, but he’s always in top position — it appears that he’ll fall short of the 50 percent needed to win outright in Sunday’s vote. In that case, he’ll face the second-place finisher in the runoff in April.
The true battle on Sunday, observers say, is between Poroshenko and Tymoshenko, who in some surveys are shown to be neck and neck. Out of the field of 39 candidates, two have names similar to the former prime minister: Yuriy Tymoshenko and Yulia Lytvynenko.
These “clone candidates” could result in confusion in the voting booth, especially among Tymoshenko’s older voters, and raise the risk that her supporters don’t accept the result.
“The risk here is that there could be a constellation in which Poroshenko advances to the second round but with a very small margin,” said Andreas Umland, an expert at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kiev. He said there’s a risk that such a circumstance could lead to “protests, escalation and potential riots.”
Western diplomats are also worried about potential violence. Ukrainian officials accredited the National Militia — a far-right organization involved in attacks on Roma and gay people, and whom the State Department has labeled a hate group — as election observers.
Ambassadors from the Group of Seven industrialized countries — which includes the United States — this month sent a letter to Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov flagging their concern about “extreme political movements in Ukraine, whose violent actions are worrying in themselves.”
“We have noted with concern that the very same groups involved in the violent incidents have registered as election observers and publicly threatened to use violence should they consider that election fraud is occurring,” the letter said.
Despite Zelensky’s lead in the polls, both Tymoshenko’s and Poroshenko’s supporters are hoping that voters will refrain from backing a comedian with no political experience when they actually step into the ballot box on Sunday.
Poroshenko’s closing appeal on his purple campaign posters affixed across Kiev is simply: “Think.”
“I’m for Poroshenko, because he’s more predictable,” said Evgeny Pankratov, an IT specialist in Kiev. “And because he won’t lead us to Russia. Among three evils, he’s the lesser.”
Troianovski reported from Moscow. Natalia Abbakumova in Moscow contributed to this report.