With the 21 April date for the second round of Ukraine’s presidential elections fast approaching, the 41-year-old insurgent candidate Volodymyr Zelensky reportedly enjoys a commanding lead over incumbent Petro Poroshenko.
In the first independent poll taken since the first round on 31 March, which saw Zelensky secure 30% of the vote to Poroshenko’s 15%, the former currently has 51% of the popular support amongst likely voters, nearly 30 percentage points ahead of his opponent.
Among respondents who intend to vote in the second round of the election on April 21 – 61% of those said they would cast a vote for Zelensky, a political neophyte who has never served in government and who gained fame in the post-Soviet space for his satirical comedy show, “Servant of the People” in which he plays a former teacher-turned-anti-corruption-crusading president.
Zelensky holds a massive lead over Poroshenko in the areas of Ukraine where Ukrainian is not the dominant language, including in nearly all of Ukraine’s urban areas which have historically been Russian-speaking. Zelensky is also holding a lead in the capital Kyiv and the areas closest to the front lines of the ongoing war with Russia and their local, pro-Moscow allies.
Backed by the right-wing Ukrainian diaspora and many members of the oligarch dominated ancien régime, Poroshenko’s campaign had assumed that Kyiv and the military units deployed to the eastern Donbass region would rally in droves to support the incumbent after he campaigned on a platform that put the army, the use of the Ukrainian language, and the newly-independent Kyiv Patriarchate as the central arguments for his re-election.
Ukrainian voters, however, appear to have grown tired of Poroshenko’s failures to tackle runaway corruption and nepotism, to prosecute officials involved in widespread graft schemes, or implement the reforms that the Ukrainian population demanded after the 2013-14 Euromaidan Revolution toppled his pro-Russian successor, and former boss from when Poroshenko served as his trade minister, Viktor Yanukovych.
Though thin on actual details, Zelensky’s message has drawn in young voters and other Ukrainians who have been attracted by his calls for bans on official posts for those convicted of corruption and his willingness to outsource ideas for key cabinet appointments.
Since first emerging as a legitimate candidate in January, Zelensky has received the backing of key reformers in the post-Soviet space, including Ukraine’s former Finance Minister Alexander Danylyuk, Aivaras Abromavicius, Ukraine’s former minister of economy and trade, Georgia’s ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, prominent anti-corruption lawyer Sergey Leshchenko, and Anatoly Grytsenko, the former defence minister of Ukraine who dropped out of the presidential race after the first round.
Part of Zelensky’s success, thus far, has been his ability to understand the main concerns of Ukrainian voters, namely the fight against corruption, a peaceful end to five years of war against Russia-backed separatists in the east that has cost the lives of more than 13,000 people, and national unity and reconciliation that is not based on language or religious affiliation – all of which Poroshenko and his backers ignored or badly misread.