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Comedian leads final polls as Ukraine prepares to elect president

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Kiev (AFP)

A comedian whose political experience is limited to playing the president in a TV show was leading final polls Thursday as Ukraine prepares for the first round of a presidential election.

Actor Volodymyr Zelensky's bid started as a long shot but he has leapfrogged establishment politicians amid public frustration over corruption and stagnating living standards.

Several polls published ahead of the Sunday vote put the 41-year-old star of political comedy "Servant of the People", which returns for its third season this week, above 25 percent.

One survey put incumbent Petro Poroshenko and ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko neck-and-neck at around 17 percent to progress to a two-person run-off vote next month.

But a second poll showed Poroshenko, who since 2014 has led the country of 45 million locked in a separatist conflict, pulling well ahead of his ally-turned-foe Tymoshenko.

Zelensky, who has a young support base, confesses he has "no experience" but insists he has the strength to lead Ukraine.

"I don't have all the knowledge but I'm learning this now," he told AFP in an interview this month.

"I don't want to look like an idiot."

Critics point to the vagueness of his manifesto, the key pledges of which were chosen following a public vote on social media.

But supporters say only a brand-new face can clean up Ukraine's murky politics.

Some accuse him of acting as a front for the interests of oligarch Igor Kolomoysky, who owns the channel that broadcasts the entertainer's shows, though Zelensky denies any political links.

- 'My opponent is Putin' -

Poroshenko was elected president five years ago after a popular uprising forced his Kremlin-backed predecessor Viktor Yanukovych from office.

The pro-Western uprising was followed by Russia's annexation of Crimea and a conflict in the east of Ukraine between Kiev's forces and Moscow-backed separatists.

Poroshenko came in on promises to tackle graft, align Ukraine with the West and shut down the fighting in the east.

He has brought in a raft of reforms to boost the economy and fight corruption, though they have yet to produce noticeable changes in living standards.

Meanwhile the simmering separatist conflict has cost some 13,000 lives.

"My ally is the Ukrainian people... my opponent is (Vladimir) Putin," Poroshenko said of the Russian president during a televised appearance ahead of the first-round vote.

The 53-year-old leader has positioned himself as the only person able to stand up to the Kremlin and promised to return Crimea to Ukraine if he is re-elected.

The pledge has been widely dismissed as unrealistic.

The BBC meanwhile said Thursday it would pay Poroshenko damages over an "incorrect" report last year that Kiev had paid $400,000 to secure a meeting between him and US leader Donald Trump.

The retracted piece claimed that intermediaries paid Trump's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen a "secret payment" to "fix talks" at the White House in 2017.

- Record number of candidates -

Tymoshenko -- who was once known for her traditional plaited hairstyle but has in recent years opted for a more conventional pony tail -- has focused on the cost of living.

She has promised to cut consumer gas prices in half and boost pensions as she appeals to an older base during her third tilt at the presidency.

With a record 39 candidates on the ballot paper for the first round, analysts say the race remains open despite Zelensky's dominance in the polls.

"If you look at his figures, you get the feeling that (Zelensky) has already reached his electoral peak," said political analyst Mykola Davydyuk.

His younger supporters are also less likely to turn out on polling day, he added.

Barring a shock result in which one candidate crosses the 50 percent threshold in the first round, a two-person run-off will be held on April 21.

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