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Challenger Zelenskiy wins Ukraine presidency in landslide, exit polls suggest

Sergei Gapon, AFP | Ukrainian comedian and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy reacts after the announcement of the first exit poll results in the second round of Ukraine's presidential election in Kiev on April 21, 2019.

A comedian with no political experience won a landslide victory in Ukraine's presidential election Sunday, exit polls and a partial vote count showed, dealing a stunning rebuke to the country's political establishment.

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Volodymyr Zelenskiy, whose only previous political role was playing the president on television, trounced incumbent Petro Poroshenko by taking 73 percent of the vote, according to exit polls and partial official results.

Poroshenko garnered just 24 percent with 42 percent of ballots counted.

"I will never let you down," the 41-year-old TV star said at his campaign headquarters after the results of exit polls were published.

"While I am not formally president yet, as a citizen of Ukraine I can tell all post-Soviet countries: 'Look at us! Everything is possible!'"

Zelenskiy: 'Look at us! Everything is possible'

Incumbent Poroshenko conceded defeat and congratulated Zelenskiy.

"I am leaving office, but I want to firmly underline that I am not leaving politics," he said.

Poroshenko lost across all regions of the country, including in the west where he traditionally enjoyed strong support.

It was an extraordinary outcome to a campaign that started as a joke but struck a chord with voters frustrated by poverty, corruption and a five-year war that has claimed some 13,000 lives.

The star of TV series "Servant of the People" will now take the helm of a country of 45 million people beset by challenges and having run on the vaguest of political platforms.

Congratulations poured in from Europe and beyond, with French President Emmanuel Macron and Poland's Andrzej Duda congratulating the Ukrainian president-elect by phone.

"You will now truly be the Servant of the People," said British foreign minister Jeremy Hunt on Twitter, pledging London's support.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and President of the European Council Donald Tusk said they looked forward to continuing support and cooperation.

"We congratulate President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy," the US embassy in Ukraine said on Twitter.

'Tired of the lies'

After taking the most votes in last month's first-round election, Zelenskiy had enjoyed a strong lead over the 53-year-old Poroshenko going into Sunday's poll.

Voting earlier in the capital Kiev, the beaming frontrunner had said his campaign managed to bring Ukrainians together.

"We have united Ukraine," he said, wearing a casual suit with a T-shirt and accompanied by his wife. "Everything will be alright."

Sparkling wine was on offer at his campaign headquarters as the star's team prepared to toast his victory on Palm Sunday, a week before Orthodox Easter.

Preliminary results were expected in several hours but the same exit polls were accurate in the first round.

‘Zelenskiy has no clear Russia policy’

From Ukrainian-speaking regions in the west of the country to Russian-speaking territories in the war-torn east, many voters said they feared uncertainty but yearned for change.

"We're tired of all the lies," said Marta Semenyuk, 26, who cast her ballot for the comedian.

"I think it just cannot get any worse and I hope he'll live up to his promises," said Larisa, an 18-year-old student from the government-held eastern port city of Mariupol.

Zelenskiy's victory opens a new chapter in the history of a country that has gone through two popular uprisings in the last 20 years and is mired in a conflict with Moscow-backed separatists in the east.

His supporters say only a fresh face can clean up Ukraine's politics and end the separatist conflict.

Profile: TV celebrity Volodymyr Zelenskiy

But others doubt the showman will be able to take on the country's influential oligarchs, negotiate with the likes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and stand up to Russia's Vladimir Putin.

"People have gone mad," Viktoriya Olomutska, a 39-year-old Poroshenko supporter, said in Kiev. "Cinema and reality are two different things."

Russia’s foreign ministry said Ukraine had voted for change.

"The new leadership now must understand and realise the hopes of its electors. This of course applies to domestic as well as foreign affairs," deputy foreign minister Grigory Karasin told news agency RIA Novosti.

'Not funny'

Poroshenko mocked his rival's lack of political experience and argued he was unfit to be a wartime commander-in-chief.

The outgoing leader came to power after a 2014 pro-Western uprising ousted a Kremlin-backed regime, triggering Moscow's annexation of Crimea.

His supporters credited him with rebuilding the army and securing an Orthodox Church independent of Russia.

>> Watch our report: Fighting ramps up in Ukraine's Donbas ahead of presidential elections

But many feel like the country's ruling elite have forgotten the promises of the revolution.

Earlier Sunday, Poroshenko warned Ukrainians against taking a chance on Zelenskiy.

"Because this is not funny. Well, at first it can be a bit funny and then it might hurt afterwards," he said after casting his ballot.

The comic shunned traditional campaign rallies and instead performed comedy gigs and used social media to appeal to voters.

>> Read more: Ukraine rivals clash in ‘unorthodox’ football-stadium debate

The Ukrainian president has strong powers over defence, security and foreign policy but needs backing from parliament to push through reforms.

Poroshenko's faction has the most seats in the current legislature and new parliamentary polls are due in October.

The West has closely watched the race amid concern that a new government might undo years of economic reforms.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called both Zelenskiy and Poroshenko on the eve of the run-off vote.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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