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Volodymr Zelensky, a popular comedian initially brushed off by Ukraine’s political elite as a novice, won the nation’s presidential election in a landslide vote Sunday.
Zelensky, 41, earned more than 70% of the votes, according to exit polls, and his supporters expressed hopes the victory would usher in a new generation of leaders committed to weeding out oligarchs and political corruption.
Zelensky was running against incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire chocolate tycoon whose term began in 2014 just months after massive street protests forced a Kremlin-favored president to flee the country and ensured the post-Soviet republic’s pivot away from Moscow.
Many Zelensky supporters said they were voting for him not because they backed whatever largely unstated plans he might have for running the post-Soviet nation of 44 million, but because they sought to reject Poroshenko’s entanglement in Ukraine’s corrupted political elite.
Zelensky, after kissing his wife and thanking his parents, told supporters at his election headquarters, “We did this together.”
“To all the citizens of post-Soviet countries: Look at us. Everything is possible,” he said, a veiled nudge at Russia, where Russian President Vladimir Putin was recently reelected in a Kremlin-controlled process with no real political opponents.
Poroshenko, 53, campaigned as a wartime president who brought economic stability to the country despite the ongoing threats of another Russian attack.
But he failed to convince voters he had done enough to combat the country’s endemic corruption. The president received just 25% of the vote, according to exit polls, which would represent a humiliating defeat to the political newcomer.
Poroshenko conceded shortly after the exit numbers came out Sunday evening.
“Zelensky is a guy who is out of the system, and that’s good,” said Anton Mykalychyuk, 27, after casting his vote for Zelensky in central Kiev. “He made his own money, so he doesn’t owe anyone in the current system anything.”
Ukraine’s presidential election campaign lasted for two rounds and was dominated by voter complaints about the economic situation and calls for a complete overhaul of the political system.
Zelensky has been a public figure in Ukraine for decades. He is best known as an actor in his comedy troupe Kvartal 95. The name of the group comes from the region where he grew up in Kryvyi Rih, an industrial city of some 800,000 in central Ukraine.
The region’s metallurgy plants were notorious during the Soviet era for puffing out smoke that turned winter snow orange.
Zelensky, whose father was a professor and his mother an engineer, studied economics at the Kryvy Rih Economic Institute and later received a law degree. He never practiced law, but instead used his acting and participation in sketch comedy shows and competitions to launch his career in entertainment.
In 2015, Zelensky became the star of a hit television series called “Servant of the People.” In the show, now in its third season, Zelensky played Vasiliy Holoborodko, a history teacher who became president after a viral video of him ranting against corrupt politicians went viral.
The popular series seems to have been the catalyst for creating what is now the political phenomenon of Zelensky as the actual president of Ukraine, said Volodymyr Fesenko, a political analyst with the Kiev-based think tank Penta Center for Political Studies.
The show “formatted a now very popular political myth that an ordinary person could become president, that he could change the political system,” Fesenko said. “It became a fairy tale for Ukrainians about how they could change the political system in the country.”
Two years after the start of Zelensky’s hit show, Poroshenko’s administration began facing a new domestic crisis: growing public distrust in the government ahead of this year’s presidential and parliamentary elections.
Since independence in 1991, Ukrainian politics has been dominated by a political elite that many voters believe use their power to enrich their pockets while the rest of the country struggles economically.