Comic, Billionaire, Comeback Queen Vie in Ukraine Election

(Bloomberg) -- Ukrainians are choosing a leader from among almost 40 candidates in Sunday’s presidential election, though the contest is ending up as a three-horse race.

Five years after a violent revolution demanding political re-alignment with Europe and an end to post-communist corruption, voters aren’t happy. Anti-establishment fervor has made Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a 41-year-old TV comic with no political experience, the front-runner. That’s left the incumbent, billionaire confectionery magnate Petro Poroshenko, scrapping with ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko for the second spot in a runoff in three weeks.

Comic, Billionaire, Comeback Queen Vie in Ukraine Election

Who leads Ukraine is of global significance since the country of 42 million people, locked between Russia and the European Union, became a geopolitical battleground. The West has pumped in billions of dollars in aid since protesters ousted Kremlin-backed Viktor Yanukovych in 2014.

Comic, Billionaire, Comeback Queen Vie in Ukraine Election

While a return to Russia’s sphere of influence is only a distant possibility, failure to lock up crooked officials is alienating donors and voters alike. So is the persistent military conflict that Russia fomented in eastern Ukraine after President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea.

“Ukrainian voters are showing wider disenchantment from established political elites and punishing them by choosing an ‘outsider,”’ said Lilit Gevorgyan, an economist at IHS Markit. “Lingering nepotism and corruption, and the slow pace of reforms, don’t match the sacrifices ordinary Ukrainians feel they’ve made in the past five years.”

Financial pain is a major theme. While the economy is growing again after a deep recession, the rebound has been lackluster, kept afloat by loans from the International Monetary Fund. People are worse off following a currency devaluation and hikes to utility tariffs. Many have emigrated.

Comic, Billionaire, Comeback Queen Vie in Ukraine Election

“My attitude toward elections has changed, I feel bigger responsibility now,” said Anna Pokidina, 32, a banker as she was casting her ballot downtown Kiev. “The war and a threat to lose my home make sober.”

Turnout was 45.2 percent as of 3 p.m., according to the Central Election Commission.

Zelenskiy, who plays a fictional president on television, has found success by attacking his rivals over the nation’s endemic corruption. But he’s been vague on actual policies and isn’t immune to murky accusations himself: he’s repeatedly denied political links to the billionaire whose TV channel airs his shows.

While Zelenskiy leads opinion polls and is the favorite to beat either of his two challengers in a head-to-head contest, a substantial chunk of the electorate remains undecided. What’s more, voter surveys in Ukraine have a history of being unreliable, and there’s talk that some of Zelenskiy’s predominantly young supporters won’t actually make it to the polling stations.

That offers hope to Poroshenko, 53, who -- despite the negativity over graft -- can trumpet achievements that include securing visa-free travel to the EU for Ukrainians and helping create an Orthodox church independent of Russia. There have been some reform successes too, namely a banking clean-up and an overhaul of public procurement.

Tymoshenko, 58, is making her third stab at the presidency. Dismissed by some as a populist, she retains a base of hardcore support and has come back to the brink of the runoff having lost comprehensively to Poroshenko last time round.

But like the current president, her stumbling block is that she hails from the past.

“Zelenskiy is the choice of those who’re against all the old politicians,” said Iryna Bekeshkina, head of the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation in Kiev. “It doesn’t really matter what he promises.”

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