LONDON - Ukraine is preparing for three weeks of impassioned political campaigning as a television comedian goes head-to-head with the incumbent for the presidency in a runoff scheduled for April 21.
As widely predicted, satirist Volodymyr Zelenskiy easily won the first round of voting Sunday with around 30%. He needed a margin of more than 50% for an outright victory.
"This is only the first step toward a great victory," Zelenskiy told supporters and media gathered Sunday night in Kyiv. "We don't care who we compete with in the second round. I've already been told that some fake news has been going around claiming we were trying to make some deals with someone. But we aren't making any deals with anyone. We are young people. We don't want to see all the past in our future, the future of our country," he added.
Incumbent Petro Poroshenko came in second at 16% with a majority of votes counted. He struck a humble tone following the result.
"I don't feel any kind of euphoria. I critically and soberly understand the signal that society gave today to the acting authorities," he said.
Poroshenko immediately took aim at his rival, accusing Zelenskiy of being a puppet of exiled oligarch Ihor Kolomoysky — a claim Zelenskiy has repeatedly denied. Kolomoysky owns the 1+1 television channel, which broadcasts Zelenskiy's political satire, Servant of the People.
The next three weeks will likely see some tough campaigning, says analyst Anna Korbut of London-based policy institute Chatham House.
"Poroshenko's agenda, which was initially based more on language, faith, [moving] away from Moscow, security — so these are kind of what we can call statehood aspects. Zelenskiy's agenda is more focused on responding to the voters' concerns. But how it will play out, we don't know yet, because there is little to talk about in the Zelenskiy agenda," Korbut said.
Support for experience
Zelenskiy's appeal is his novelty as a political outsider, but voters want to know more, said Irina Bekeshkina, head of the nongovernmental organization Democratic Initiative in Kyiv.
"[We will see] how the next three weeks will go, whether the debates will be held, whether people will cast a protest vote if they do not know what program the candidate offers. Whether they will vote for the certainty, which many people do not like, or for uncertainty when nothing is clear," Bekeshkina said.
Zelenskiy's policies on the continuing conflict in the east will come under greater scrutiny.
"Zelenskiy has not said how he would confront, or what position he would come up with, in a potential conversation with Russia or in an international format," Korbut said.
For some Ukrainians, Zelenskiy's inexperience is troubling.
"I expected that he [Zelenskiy] would have fewer votes and Poroshenko would have more votes and people would think more and cast their votes thoughtfully," said Kyiv resident Anton, who did not provide his last name.
Push for change
Zelenskiy's supporters say Ukraine desperately needs change.
"Of course I am satisfied. We voted for Zelenskiy. Everything is cool," Kyiv hotel worker Lubov Teplova said.
The big loser Sunday was former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was finishing in third place, according to early counts.
For Ukrainians, the choice on April 21 will be the incumbent versus the comedian. Both are strongly pro-Western and pro-reform, but there are few other similarities.
Much will depend on whom the eliminated candidates now endorse, and whether Zelenskiy can continue to pick up protest votes in the final round.