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Comedian, chocolate baron, gas princess: Ukraine's presidential candidates

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Kiev (AFP)

The three frontrunners in Ukraine's presidential election are comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, incumbent Petro Poroshenko and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Here are short profiles of the main contenders hoping to progress from Sunday's vote to a second round runoff, as well as a summary of the other candidates.

- Zelensky: no joke -

Zelensky has already been elected president of Ukraine -- in the popular TV show "Servant of the People," the third series of which will air this week.

The 41-year-old comedian's real presidential bid started out as a long shot but, on the back of popular discontent with the political class, he has leapt to pole position.

Supporters see him as a breath of fresh air, but critics say his manifesto is vague and that a country at war should not be taking a chance on a political novice.

He has been accused of being a "puppet" for controversial Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoysky, but he denies any political connection.

Zelensky, who has earned comparisons to US actor-turned-president Ronald Reagan, shuns campaign rallies in favour of comedy gigs. He prefers to get his message across through videos on social media rather than television.

The father of two comes from the industrial city of Krivy Rig in central Ukraine. He has a law degree but made his career on the stage.

If elected, Zelensky promises to move forward with the implementation of the Minsk peace process that is supposed to put an end to the war with pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country.

- Tymoshenko: gas princess -

Tymoshenko has been a divisive figure on the Ukrainian political scene for the past two decades, coming to international prominence through her role in the 2004 Orange Revolution.

With her hair braided and wrapped around her head in a traditional peasant style, she became a face of the fight against voter fraud and Russian-backed leadership.

She went on to serve as prime minister under the protest's co-leader Viktor Yushchenko.

But her fortunes changed after she lost the 2010 presidential election to the pro-Russian politician Viktor Yanukovych.

Tymoshenko faced a string of criminal investigations and was handed a seven-year jail term for abuse of power. The case was denounced by the West as politically motivated.

She served three of those years and was released in 2014, after Yanukovych fled the country following a popular uprising.

Tymoshenko, whose signature peasant braid has been replaced by a pony tail and thick glasses, came a distant second to Poroshenko in the 2014 election.

Supporters say the 58-year-old has the iron will and anti-Kremlin credentials needed to lead Ukraine. But detractors say she is a corrupt populist and accuse her of having secret ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

She earned the nickname of gas princess after rising to national prominence as head of a private gas facility in the 1990s, later overseeing energy policy and negotiating controversial gas deals with Russia.

If elected she has promised to cut consumer gas prices in half.

- Poroshenko, chocolate baron -

Poroshenko was elected president of Ukraine in 2014 after a pro-Western anti-corruption uprising ousted his predecessor from office.

The businessman, who amassed his fortune selling his own brand of chocolates, made closer ties with the West the central mission of his first term.

But detractors say the 53-year-old has done too little to tackle graft and improve living standards.

When elected, Poroshenko was one of the country's 10 richest men with a fortune estimated at around $1.3 billion (1.1 billion euros) by Forbes magazine.

In 2015 he dropped off the list of billionaires and his current fortune is around $500 million, according to the Ukrainian media.

The father of four entered politics as a lawmaker in 1998. He was one of the founders of Yanukovych's Regions Party in 2000.

Over the years he has switched loyalties between the pro-Russian and pro-Western camps.

While he was once an ally of Tymoshenko, the pair had a notorious falling out when in government together after the Orange Revolution and now opinion polls show them neck-and-neck to face Zelensky in a second round.

- The others -

A record 39 candidates are on the ballot paper for the first round but apart from three main contenders, none has a serious chance of progressing to the runoff.

They include Oleg Lyashko, the head of the Radical Party who taps into countryside support with bizarre stunts such as kissing cows, and nationalist candidate Ruslan Koshulynsky who fought against separatist rebels in the east.

Lawmaker Yuriy Tymoshenko insists he is a genuine candidate and not simply standing to confuse voters and pull support away from his near-namesake Yulia.

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