KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine’s presidential runoff Sunday is a battle between a billionaire tycoon who rode anti-Russian protests to the nation’s top office five years ago and a comedian who plays a president in a TV sitcom. Improbably, the actor appears poised to win.
Comic actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s commanding lead in the polls reflects widespread disillusionment with President Petro Poroshenko and Ukraine’s old political elite, as well as a seething anger against rampant corruption and a lack of opportunity that have left many in endemic poverty.
It also reflects a campaign that has effectively used humor and social media to reach voters.
“It’s not only a clash between the old candidate and the new one, but between old and new technologies,” said Zelenskiy’s chief digital campaign strategist, 28-year-old Mikhail Fyodorov.
Zelenskiy’s easygoing style and artistic flair contrasts sharply with Poroshenko’s stodgy demeanor and stiff gestures, and the rival campaigns bear the distinctive mark of their starkly different persona.
While the president has focused on traditional barnstorming, using sympathetic television stations to give extensive coverage of his appearances, Zelenskiy has largely stayed away from the campaign trail and eschewed interviews. He has run his campaign mainly on Instagram, where he has 3.7 million followers.
“A new digital era will bring a new political elite to power,” Fyodorov said. “We managed to draw Poroshenko into a race on the digital field he’s not familiar with. They started copying us, proving a lack of their own digital strategy.”
Indeed, the increasing digital output of Poroshenko’s campaign is often awkward. One video linked to the campaign shows Zelenskiy being run over by a truck, leaving behind a streak resembling a line of cocaine.
There is no evidence that Zelenskiy, a 41-year-old fitness freak, uses drugs.
Zelenskiy responded with an Instagram post recorded at a swimming pool, alluding to dirty election tactics.
“It’s a time of dirt, stress and depression,” he writes below the post. “The pool takes it all away.”
That post got 1 million views on its first day.
Oleh Medvedev, Poroshenko’s campaign spokesman, said the 53-year-old president’s heavy emphasis on television reflects the fact that two-thirds of Ukrainians still get their news from TV.
“We are actively using new instruments,” he said, pointing at Poroshenko’s 2.4 million followers on Facebook. “But it’s necessary to understand that television remains the main means of communication in Ukraine.”
Poroshenko’s campaign has also been waged in the streets, or rather above them — with equally undesired results. It was first marked by billboards showing the incumbent facing Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a suggestion that Poroshenko — unlike his rival — could stand up to the Kremlin.
After widespread mockery, new billboards appeared showing only Poroshenko alongside the word “Think.” Then they were modified again, removing the candidate altogether and leaving just the word “Think.”
Zelenskiy’s team countered with a post showing a man looking up at one of the billboards and then down at potholes in the road below. “I’m awfully sorry, but what is there to think about?” he asks.
The differences between the two candidates are not only stylistic.
The incumbent has campaigned on the promise he made when he was elected in 2014: to lead Ukraine into the European Union and NATO. Given Ukraine’s economic problems, pervasive corruption and grinding five-year conflict with Russia-backed separatists in the east, neither seems plausible for now. Poroshenko also makes the equally unlikely pledge to wrest back control of Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014 in a move that most of the world considers illegal.
His most effective tactics have been to go after his rival, focusing on Zelenskiy’s lack of political experience and the vagueness of the actor’s economic program. He calls Zelenskiy a “puppet” of Poroshenko’s arch-foe, a self-exiled billionaire businessman who owns the station that airs Zelenskiy’s sitcom.
“Our message to voters is that our opponent isn’t ready to fulfill presidential duties, particularly as the commander-in-chief, dealing with issues of defense, security and foreign policy,” Medvedev said.
Poroshenko has touted his accomplishments in creating a new Ukrainian Orthodox Church independent from Moscow’s Patriarchate and pushed for a bill that would outlaw the use of the Russian language, which remains widely spoken in Ukraine.
Zelenskiy, who comes from Ukraine’s mostly Russian-speaking east, has pledged to maintain Ukraine’s pro-Western course but opposes the Russian language restrictions and mocks the creation of the new church as a campaign stunt.
He says his No. 1 task would be to hold talks with Moscow on ending the conflict in the east that has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014.
He also wages attacks of his own, mostly focusing on corruption allegations that have dogged the president. Poroshenko denies any link to an alleged embezzlement scheme involving one of his companies and a top associate.
Zelenskiy’s billboards promise “An end of the era of greed.”
Opinion surveys suggest that Zelenskiy’s digital campaign has been successful in expanding his support base.
In the election’s first round on March 31, Zelenskiy got 30% support of voters and Poroshenko just under 16%. The latest opinion survey, released this week by the Rating agency, suggests Zelenskiy has 58% support while Poroshenko has just 22%. The poll of 3,000 people had a margin of error of 1.8 percentage points.
On Friday, the rivals are set to face each other in a debate at the nation’s largest sports arena.
It was Zelenskiy who dictated the terms, naming the debate venue and setting the date. He also challenged Poroshenko to take alcohol and drug tests before it, much like prizefighters before a bout.
Labs said no traces of narcotics or alcohol was found in either man.
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