Ukraine entered uncharted political waters on Sunday after an exit poll showed a comedian with no political experience and few detailed policies had easily won enough votes to become the next president of a country at war.
The apparent landslide victory of Volodymyr Zelenskiy, 41, is a bitter blow for incumbent Petro Poroshenko who tried to rally Ukrainians around the flag by casting himself as a bulwark against Russian aggression and a champion of Ukrainian identity.
The national exit poll showed Zelenskiy had won 73 per cent of the vote with Poroshenko winning just 25 per cent.
If the poll is right, Zelenskiy, who plays a fictitious president in a popular TV series, will now 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.
Zelenskiy plays a high school teacher who is elected Ukraine’s president on a TV series, but has never held political office.
Zelenskiy said after the poll suggested his overwhelming victory that his apparent win could be a model for other ex-Soviet states that want to move beyond ossified politics.
He said: “While I am not yet president, I can speak as a citizen of Ukraine: To all the countries of the former Soviet Union, look at us. Everything is possible.”
Zelenskiy said after the poll results were released on Sunday night: “I promise, I will never let you down.”
Shortly after exit polls showed Poroshenko getting only a quarter of the vote in Sunday’s runoff election, he said he was willing to help Mr Zelenskiy transition into the presidency.
Poroshenko said: “I am leaving office, but I want to firmly underline that I am not leaving politics.”
Zelenskiy, 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 falling living standards.
But he has been coy about exactly how he plans to achieve all that. Investors want reassurances that he will accelerate reforms needed to attract foreign investment and keep the country in an International Monetary Fund programme.