KIEV (REUTERS, AFP) – Comedian Volodymyr Zelensky swept to victory in Ukraine’s presidential election Sunday, an exit poll showed, as millions of voters weary of war and economic hardship rebuked the ruling elites and ushered in fresh uncertainty for their geopolitically pivotal nation.
Two national exit polls showed Zelensky had won 73 per cent of the vote with Poroshenko winning just 25 percent. Early voting data suggested the polls were accurate.
Zelensky, who plays a fictitious president in a popular TV series, is now poised to take over the leadership of a country on the frontline of the West’s standoff with Russia following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and support for a pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine.
Declaring victory at his campaign headquarters to emotional supporters, Zelensky promised he would not let the Ukrainian people down.
“I’m not yet officially the president, but as a citizen of Ukraine, I can say to all countries in the post-Soviet Union look at us. Anything is possible!”
He vowed to “reboot” peace talks with separatists that also involve Russia and the West.
“We will continue with the Minsk talks, we will reboot them,” Zelensky told a news conference after exit polls showed him winning with 73 per cent of the vote.
“The most important” thing is to “stop the fighting”, Zelensky said, also promising to bring back Ukrainians held in rebel areas or in Russia that Kiev says are political prisoners or prisoners of war.
The leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany signed peace agreements in Minsk in 2015 that aimed to put an end to the conflict between Kiev and Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
They have so far failed to halt the fighting, which has claimed some 13,000 lives since the conflict erupted in 2014 following the ouster of a pro-Russian leader.
Ukrainian forces and pro-Russia rebels routinely blame each other for breaking the various truces attempted under the Minsk accords. Zelensky said there would be “personnel changes” in those involved in peace talks, but did not elaborate.
European Council President Donald Tusk congratulated Zelensky, as did French President Emmanuel Macron and British foreign minister Jeremy Hunt.
Zelensky, whose victory fits a pattern of anti-establishment figures unseating incumbents in Europe and further afield, has promised to end the war in the eastern Donbass region and to root out corruption amid widespread dismay over rising prices and sliding living standards.
But he has been coy about exactly how he plans to achieve all that and investors want reassurances that he will accelerate reforms needed to attract foreign investment and keep the country in an International Monetary Fund programme.
“Since there is complete uncertainty about the economic policy of the person who will become president, we simply don’t know what is going to happen and that worries the financial community,” said Serhiy Fursa, an investment banker at Dragon Capital in Kiev.
“We need to see what the first decisions are, the first appointments. We probably won’t understand how big these risks are earlier than June. Perhaps nothing will change.”
The United States, the European Union and Russia will be closely watching Zelensky’s foreign policy pronouncements to see if and how he might try to end the war against pro-Russian separatists that has killed some 13,000 people.
Zelensky said on Sunday he planned to continue European-backed talks with Russia on a so far largely unimplemented peace deal and would try to free Ukrainians imprisoned in Russia, which is holding 24 Ukrainian sailors among others.
Viktor Medvedchuk, the Kremlin’s closest ally in Ukraine, last week outlined ways in which Ukraine and Russia could mend ties, though Zelensky has given no indication of being open to the prospect.
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Ukraine now had a chance to “reset” and unite its people.
An emotional Poroshenko conceded defeat to his supporters, some of whom were crying.
Although he said he accepted the loss, he said he would not leave politics and that Zelenskiy would face strong opposition, a reminder that Zelensky will have to work with a sometimes volatile parliament before it is re-elected in October.
Zelensky has pledged to keep Ukraine on a pro-Western course, but has sounded less emphatic than Poroshenko about possible plans for the country of 42 million people to one day join the European Union and NATO.
Poroshenko said on social media he thought Zelensky’s win would spark celebrations in the Kremlin. “They believe that with a new inexperienced Ukrainian President, Ukraine could be quickly returned to Russia’s orbit of influence,” he wrote.
Critics accuse Zelensky of having an unhealthily close working relationship with a powerful oligarch called Ihor Kolomoisky, whose TV channel broadcasts his comedy shows. Zelensky has rejected those accusations.
One of the most important and early tests of that promise will be the fate of PrivatBank, Ukraine’s largest lender, which was nationalised in 2016. The government wrested PrivatBank from Kolomoisky as part of a banking system clean-up backed by the IMF, which supports Ukraine with a US$3.9 billion loan programme.
But its fate hangs in the balance after a Kiev court ruled days before the election that the change of PrivatBank’s ownership was illegal, delighting Kolomoisky but rocking the central bank which said it would appeal.
Zelensky has repeatedly denied he would seek to hand PrivatBank back to Kolomoisky if elected or help the businessman win compensation for the ownership change.
The IMF will be watching closely too to see if Zelensky will allow gas prices to rise to market levels, an IMF demand but a politically sensitive issue and one Zelensky has been vague about.
Zelensky gave few new policy details on Sunday, but said he wanted a new general prosecutor to replace incumbent Yuriy Lutsenko, and spoke of wanting new generals to work in the army.
His unorthodox campaign traded on the character he plays in the TV show, a scrupulously honest schoolteacher who becomes president by accident after an expletive-ridden rant about corruption goes viral.
Zelensky has promised to fight corruption, a message that has resonated with Ukrainians fed up with the status quo in a country that is one of Europe’s poorest nearly three decades after breaking away from the Soviet Union.