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Ukraine presidential vote begins under bribe claim cloud

KIEV, UKRAINE - MARCH 31: A voter emerges from the voting booth after filling out her ballot for Ukraine's presidential election on March 31, 2019 in Kiev, Ukraine. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, the top two vote-getters will face off in a second-round election on April 21. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

KIEV, Ukraine — Voters in Ukraine are casting ballots in a presidential election Sunday after a campaign that produced a comedian with no political experience as the front-runner and allegations of voter bribery.

Opinion polls have shown Volodymyr Zelenskiy who stars in a TV sitcom about a teacher who becomes president after a video of him denouncing corruption goes viral, leading a field of 39 candidates. The polls also had Zelenskiy outpacing incumbent President Petro Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the other top candidates, by a broad margin.

“Zelenskiy has shown us on the screen what a real president should be like,” voter Tatiana Zinchenko, 30, who cast her ballot for the comedian, said. “He showed what the state leader should aspire for — fight corruption by deeds, not words, help the poor, control the oligarchs.”

If no candidate secures an absolute majority of Sunday’s vote, a runoff between the two top finishers would be held April 21.

Concern about the election’s legitimacy spiked in recent days after the interior minister said his department was “showered” with hundreds of claims that supporters of Poroshenko and Tymoshenko offered money in exchange for votes.

Campaign issues included endemic corruption in Ukraine, the struggling economy and a seemingly intractable conflict with Russia-backed separatists in the east of the country of 42 million people.

Like the popular character he plays, Zelenskiy, 41, has made corruption a focus of his candidacy. He proposed a lifetime ban on holding public office for anyone convicted of graft. He also called for direct negotiations with Russia on ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

His lack of political experience helped his popularity with voters amid broad disillusionment with the current generation of politicians.

“There is no trust in old politicians. They were at the helm, and the situation in the country has only got worse — corruption runs amok and the war is continuing,” businessman Valery Ostrozhsky, 66, another Zelenskiy voter, said.

Poroshenko, 53, who was a confectionary tycoon when he was elected five years ago, saw his approval with citizens sink amid Ukraine’s economic woes and a sharp plunge in living standards. He campaigned on promises to defeat the rebels in the east and to wrest back control of Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014 in a move that Ukraine and almost all of the world views as illegal.

During his presidency, he also vowed to take Ukraine into the European Union and NATO and pushed successfully for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to be recognized as self-standing rather than a branch of the Russian church.

“Poroshenko has done a lot. He created our own church, bravely fought with Moscow and is trying to open the way to the EU and NATO,” schoolteacher Andriy Hristenko, 46, who voted to re-elect the president, said.

The former prime minister, Tymoshenko, shaped her message around the economic distress of millions of Ukrainians, denouncing price hikes introduced by Poroshenko as “economic genocide” and promising to reduce prices for household gas by 50 percent within a month of taking office.

“I don’t need a bright future in 50 years,” Olha Suhiy, a 58-year old cook. “I want hot water and heating to cost less tomorrow.”

A military embezzlement scheme that allegedly involved top Poroshenko’s associates and a factory controlled by the president dogged Poroshenko ahead of the election. Ultra-right activists shadowed him throughout the campaign, demanding the jailing of the president’s associates accused of involvement in the scheme.

Zelenskiy and Tymoshenko both used the alleged embezzlement to take hits at Poroshenko, who shot back at his rivals. He described them as puppets of a self-exiled billionaire businessman Igor Kolomoyskyi, which Zelenskiy and Tymoshenko denied.

However, many political observers described the presidential election as a battle between Poroshenko and Kolomoyskyi, who was on Forbes Magazine’s list of billionaires with a net worth of $1.3 billion in 2014 before dropping off the following year.

Both the president and Kolomoyskyi relied on an arsenal of media outlets under their control to exchange blows. Just days before the election, the TV channel Kolomoyskyi owns aired a new season of the “Servant of the People” TV series in which Zelenskiy stars as Ukraine’s leader.

“Kolomoyskyi has succeeded in creating a wide front against Poroshenko,” said Vadim Karasyov, head of the Institute of Global Strategies, an independent Kiev-based think tank. “Ukraine has gone through two revolutions, but ended up with the same thing — the fight between the oligarchs for the power and resources.”

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