Volodymyr Zelenskiy shot to national prominence by playing the role of president in a television comedy series.
A comedian who has never held political office is topping opinion polls ahead of Ukraine’s presidential election, but appears to be falling far short of enough support to win in the first round.
Ukrainians on Sunday will choose from 39 candidates for a president they hope can guide the country of more than 42 million out of troubles including endemic corruption, a seemingly intractable war with Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east and a struggling economy.
President Petro Poroshenko is running for another term but a poll released on Friday by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology showed him with support of just 13.7% of voters.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who shot to national prominence by playing the role of president in a television comedy series, topped the poll at 20.9%.
Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister making her third run at the presidency, was third with 9.7%.
If no candidate gets an absolute majority of the votes on Sunday, a run-off between the top two will be held on April 21. Nearly a quarter of those who intend to vote say they remain undecided, according to the survey.
All the leading candidates advocate Ukraine eventually joining Nato and the European Union, and the election will be closely watched by those organisations for indications of whether Ukraine is developing democratic processes.
Concern about the election’s freedom and fairness spiked this week after the country’s interior minister said he was looking into hundreds of claims that campaigners for Mr Poroshenko and Ms Tymoshenko were offering money to voters to support their candidates.
Mr Zelenskiy, 41, is famous for his TV portrayal of a school teacher who becomes president after a video of him denouncing corruption goes viral.
Even before he announced his candidacy, his name was turning up high in pre-election public opinion polls, with potential voters seemingly encouraged by his Servant Of The People TV series – which became the name of his party.
Like his TV character, Mr Zelenskiy has focused strongly on corruption.
He proposes a lifetime ban on holding public office for anyone convicted of corruption and calls for a tax amnesty under which someone holding hidden assets would declare them, be taxed at 5% and face no other measures.
He also calls for direct negotiation with Russia on ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Mr Poroshenko, the 53-year-old incumbent, came to power in 2014 with the image of a “good oligarch”. The bulk of his fortune came from the Roshen confectionery company, hence his nickname, the Chocolate King.
Critics denounce him for having done little to combat Ukraine’s endemic corruption and for failing to end the war in the east.
He has made economic reforms that pleased international lenders, but that burdened Ukrainians with higher utility bills.
He did score significant goals for Ukraine’s national identity and its desire to move out of Russia’s influence. He signed an association agreement with the EU so Ukrainians can travel visa-free to the European Union, and he pushed successfully for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to be recognised as self-standing rather than just a branch of the Russian church.
Ms Tymoshenko is playing heavily to the economic distress of millions of Ukrainians. She has promised to reduce prices for household gas by 50% within a month of taking office, calling the price hikes introduced by Mr Poroshenko “economic genocide”.
She also promises to take away constitutional immunity for the president, the judiciary and legislators.
She was named prime minister after the 2004 Orange Revolution protests in which she was a major figure, but her image was tarnished as she and then president Viktor Yushchenko quarrelled, and she lost to Moscow-leaning Viktyor Yanukovych in the 2010 presidential election.
In 2011, she was arrested and charged with abusing power as premier in a natural gas deal with Russia. Ms Tymoshenko said the proceedings were politically motivated revenge, and Western governments voiced concern about her incarceration.
She was released amid the disorder of the 2014 overthrow of Mr Yanukovych, and lost a presidential election to Mr Poroshenko three months later.