KIEV (REUTERS) - A comedian with a popular anti-corruption message but no political experience took the lead in the first round of Ukraine's presidential election on Sunday (March 31), early exit polls showed.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy, 41, who plays a fictional president in a TV show, had consistently led opinion polls in a three-horse race against incumbent Petro Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
According to a preliminary exit poll based on ballots cast by 1800 (11pm Singapore time), two hours before voting closed, Zelenskiy had secured 30.4 per cent of votes compared to Poroshenko's 17.8 per cent.
At stake is the leadership of a country on the front line of the West's standoff with Russia after the 2014 Maidan street protests ejected Poroshenko's Kremlin-friendly predecessor and Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula.
Investors are watching to see if the next president will push reforms required to keep the country in an International Monetary Fund bailout programme that has supported Ukraine through war, sharp recession and a currency plunge.
No candidate is expected to receive more than half the votes, meaning the election would go to a run-off on April 21.
Out of a crowded field of 39 candidates, none of the likely winners wants to move Ukraine back into Russia's orbit.
"I would like to say 'thank you' to all the Ukrainians who did not vote just for fun," Zelenskiy told his cheering supporters on Sunday evening. "It is only the beginning, we will not relax."
In keeping with the relaxed style of his campaign, Zelenskiy's election night venue provided a bar with free alcohol, table football and table tennis games.
Poroshenko called the result a "severe lesson", especially from younger voters and appealed for their support in the second round.
"You see changes in the country, but want them to be quicker, deeper and of higher quality. I have understood the motives behind your protest," he said after the exit poll.
Poroshenko, who said the elections had been fair and in line with international standards, sought to portray Zelenskiy as unfit to represent Ukraine abroad, especially in taking on Russian President Vladimir Putin in international talks.
"We must preserve sanctions as they are a powerful tool for making sure Russia also takes part in these discussions. And Russia won't be represented by (Russian TV comedians) Maxim Galkin or Evgeniy Petrosyan, but actually, just so you know, Russia will be represented by Putin."
He also played on a suspicion that Zelenskiy's campaign was masterminded by Ihor Kolomoisky, a tycoon whose channel airs Zelenskiy's shows. The two men deny being in cahoots.
"Fate decided to put me up against that Kolomoisky puppet in the second round. We won't give Kolomoisky any chance," Poroshenko said.
Tymoshenko, who had won 14.2 per cent of the votes, immediately challenged the accuracy of the result, saying her internal polling put her in second place behind Zelenskiy. She said at a press conference that she might contest the final result.
Poroshenko has fought to integrate the country with the European Union and Nato, while strengthening the military which is fighting Kremlin-backed separatists in the east of the country.
Voting around the country offered a snapshot of Ukraine's recent history. Soldiers lined up to vote in makeshift polling stations in the east.
Voters formed long lines outside polling stations in neighbouring EU member Poland, where between one and two million Ukrainians have moved, many in search of jobs and higher wages.
Pushing the use of the Ukrainian language and instrumental in establishing a new independent Orthodox church, confectionary magnate Poroshenko, 53, has cast himself as the man to prevent Ukraine again becoming a Russian vassal state.
But reforms crucial to keep foreign aid flowing have been patchy. Conflict in the eastern Donbass region has killed 13,000 people in five years and rumbles on despite Poroshenko's promise to end it within weeks. Frustration over low living standards and pervasive corruption has left the door open for Zelenskiy.
The majority of voters in separatist-held eastern Ukraine and Crimea were unlikely to take part in the election as they need to undergo a special registration process on Ukraine-controlled territory.
But Crimean residents who kept their Ukrainian citizenship after the Russian annexation five years ago crossed the land border to mainland Ukraine, from where buses took them to the nearest polling stations.
Just 9 per cent of Ukrainians have confidence in their national government, the lowest of any electorate in the world, a Gallup poll published in March showed.
Zelenskiy has tapped into this anti-establishment mood, though his inexperience makes Western officials and foreign investors wary and sceptics question his fitness to be a wartime commander-in-chief.
Inviting comparisons with US President Donald Trump and Italy's Five-Star movement, his campaign has relied heavily on social media and comedy gigs of jokes, sketches and song-and-dance routines that poke fun at his political rivals.
"This is a battle to change the country, to change the political system. It has completely discredited itself and is not supported by Ukraine's citizens or by its Western partners," Zelenskiy's political consultant, Dmitry Razumkov, told Reuters.
"After five years of fighting corruption we have returned to where we started."
Zelenskiy's campaign blurred the line between reality and the TV series in which he plays a scrupulously honest history teacher who accidentally becomes president.
In series three, which began airing in March, his character is flung into prison and the country falls under the control of oligarchs, populists and ultranationalists, and eventually gets broken up into 28 states. Thinly disguised characters resembling Poroshenko and Tymoshenko come to power.
"He embodies the perceived need for 'new faces' in politics and could sway the young, pro-reform electorate to his side,"said Economist Intelligence Unit analyst Agnese Ortolani.