Kiev, Ukraine – Ukrainians are set to choose the country’s sixth president in a runoff vote that is expected to bring an anti-establishment political novice, comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, to power.
Sunday’s poll between two candidates comes just three weeks after Zelensky, 41, won the first round of the election on March 31 among 39 candidates with more than 30 percent of ballots.
Incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, 53, who also made it to the second round with less than 16 percent of the vote, tried to recover the lost ground by a number of methods.
His first step was to link Zelensky’s success to the “Kremlin agents” and self-exiled Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky who owns the television channel that airs the comedian’s sitcoms.
Poroshenko also positioned himself as the only candidate capable of standing up to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who in 2014 annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and backed the separatists who seized control of parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the east. He even put Putin on his election poster after the first round.
“You’d be a weak head of state who would be unable to defend yourself from Putin’s blows,” he told Zelensky on Friday, the last day of campaigning during an election debate held at Kiev’s Olympic Stadium.
“I don’t believe that Mr Volodymyr dreams of handing over Ukraine, of dragging Ukraine back into the Russian empire, but Putin has such a dream,” Poroshenko added.
Poroshenko claims he is the only candidate capable of standing up to Putin [Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters]
On his part, Zelensky, who is best known for playing a president in a TV sitcom the Servant of the People, used his inexperience in his favour, adopting the image of his TV character who turned from an ordinary teacher to a corruption-busting head of state.
“I’m not a politician. I’m just an ordinary person who has come to break the system. I am the result of your mistakes and promises,” he told Poroshenko during the debate, accusing him of overseeing corruption and failing to end the war in the east that has killed more than 13,000 people.
According to the latest opinion poll, 72.7 percent of voters will back Zelensky on Sunday, whereas Poroshenko is expected to secure only 27.2 percent of ballots.
Nikolay Orlov, a psychologist in his 50s, told Al Jazeera that Zelensky is his last hope “against this corrupt system that we have for almost 30 years now”.
“I haven’t voted in the last three elections because I haven’t seen the personality I would like to support. But this time such a personality appeared. And this person is Volodia (Volodymyr) Zelensky,” he said.
“I believe that he is speaking honestly, it is not a clownery as his opponents say about him. This is the person who can change the system with his team.”
Orlov said Ukraine was locked in “a vicious circle” of corruption that destroyed the country. “We need to change the system, because it is a vicious circle.”
“If completely new people don’t come to the army, economy, politics to start to build new interactions, the destruction will continue,” he said.
But others struggle to believe that inexperienced Zelensky will be able to fix the war-torn country.
Svitlana Bondarenko, 45, an administrator at an education centre who voted for the former head of Ukraine’s security service Ihor Smeshko in the first round, told Al Jazeera that Zelensky was “a made-up image of what people want to see”.
Her candidate did not make it to the runoff vote, but she intends to take part in Sunday’s poll even if she doesn’t know yet who to support.
“[Zelensky] is a great project, but no one knows what this project will turn out to be,” said Bondarenko.
“Poroshenko has done a lot of good things, but there are a lot of minuses and unfinished business that confused people and they can’t continue to believe him. I want to give him a chance but I don’t know if he will use it.”
Valentyn Kovbasyuk, the 42-year-old software developer, voted for Poroshenko in the first round and plans to support him in the runoff as well.
“I don’t think he is a perfect candidate, but he is the most adequate for the current situation,” Kovbasyuk told Al Jazeera. “I don’t have anything particular against Zelensky, but nobody knows how he will behave if he becomes a president. He doesn’t have any experience in this field.”
Zoia Naumenko, 30, a software engineer, said she wanted to show her dissatisfaction with both candidates by staying away from the polls since the ballots in Ukraine no longer give an option of voting against all.
Naumenko credited Poroshenko with securing the independence of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church from Russia as well as forging closer ties with the West. But she wanted to punish the president for not doing enough to tackle corruption.
“His best achievement is that we can go to Europe [the Schengen zone] without a visa. Yes, he helped our army and carried out the church reform,” she said. “But he didn’t do much to fight corruption. It’s his biggest failure.”
She also holds it against Poroshenko that not enough people have been punished for the killing of demonstrators during the Maidan protests in 2014 that brought him to power.
“We have about 80 suspects detained over the killings, but only two of them have been sentenced over the last five years,” Naumenko said.
The polling stations will open in Sunday’s runoff vote at 8am local time (05:00 GMT) and close at 8pm (17:00 GMT). An early count is expected overnight on Monday.
About 35 million people are eligible to vote, but several million in Russian-annexed Crimea and rebel-held parts of eastern Ukraine are unable or unwilling to cast their ballots.
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