Comedian takes commanding lead in Ukraine presidential vote

KIEV (Reuters) - A comedian with no political experience took a commanding lead in the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election, offering a fresh face to voters fed up with corruption in a country on the front line of the West’s standoff with Russia.

With 94 percent of votes counted late on Monday, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a 41-year-old comic who plays a teacher-turned-president in a popular TV series, had won 30 percent.

President Petro Poroshenko was trailing in a distant second with just under 16 percent, a hole that may be too deep to climb out from. He faced a public furious at his failure to stamp out corruption or improve living standards five years after a pro-Russian leader was swept out by a popular revolt.

In a field of 39 candidates, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko placed third with 13 percent.

That leaves Zelenskiy and Poroshenko set to face each other in a run-off in three weeks.

In a cheerful victory speech on Sunday night, Zelenskiy provided little insight into what he would do if he wins.

“I would like to say ‘thank you’ to all the Ukrainians who did not vote just for fun,” Zelenskiy told cheering supporters. “It is only the beginning, we will not relax.”

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In keeping with a laid-back campaign that blurred the line between fiction and reality, his election night venue provided a bar with free alcohol and table football.

Poroshenko, 53, attacked Zelenskiy as fundamentally unserious, a reckless choice at a time when the country still faces a conflict against Russian-backed separatists.

President Vladimir Putin “dreams of a soft, pliant, tender, giggling, inexperienced, weak, ideologically amorphous and politically undecided president of Ukraine. Are we really going to give him that opportunity?” Poroshenko said.

But analysts said it would be tough for Poroshenko, a confectionary billionaire, to fight back to win the second round: “I find it hard to imagine how a gap that wide could be closed,” said Serhiy Fursa, a Kiev-based investment banker at Dragon Capital.

Two women in Kiev who had backed defeated candidates said they were now likely to vote for Zelenskiy.

“Only thanks to the fact that I loathe Poroshenko, and am tired of Tymoshenko... In my opinion it’s a protest against the old guys, and I’m tired of them too,” Natalia, 70, said.

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Natalia said she was worried about Zelenskiy’s lack of experience in politics but was hopeful because “he’s smart, he’s young, and his father is a lawyer - he will help him.”

Kristina, 27, said she was concerned the TV star “had no strategic program, no clear answers, not on the economy,” but she would now vote for him. “He is the lesser of two evils.”

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Zelenskiy’s advisers were predicting he would win the lion’s share of votes from the other defeated candidates, who campaigned against the status quo.

“If we believe the research done before the first round, then there will be big outflows (to Zelenskiy) from everyone,” said Dmytro Razumkov, Zelenskiy’s political adviser.

In a country dependent on foreign loans, economists are trying to figure out whether Zelenskiy would stick to reforms and fiscal policies demanded by the International Monetary Fund.

“We would expect Zelenskiy to be put under greater pressure in the run-up to the second round to flesh out his policy agenda,” said Stuart Culverhouse, head of sovereign and fixed-income research at investment bank Exotix.

Poroshenko has tried to integrate the country with the European Union and NATO while strengthening the military.

More than 13,000 people have died in the conflict against separatists and Ukraine has lost control of parts of its industrial heartland. Major combat ended with a ceasefire in 2015 but deadly clashes still take place regularly.

Crimea has been annexed by Russia in a move that triggered international financial sanctions on Moscow, and Poroshenko has campaigned hard to keep the pressure on Russia.

But public opinion has turned firmly against the political establishment. Voters say politicians failed to deliver on expectations of honest government, despite the sacrifices made during the revolt that overthrew pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovich and the years of hardship and war that followed.

Just 9 percent of Ukrainians have confidence in their national government, the lowest of any electorate in the world, a Gallup poll published in March showed.

Zelenskiy tapped into this anti-establishment mood with a campaign packed with jokes, sketches and song-and-dance routines that poked fun at his political rivals.

One supporter in Kiev said corruption was the main issue for him, and he trusted in Zelenskiy’s abilities as a manager and that he would put together a good leadership team.

“I work for a government agency and I know first-hand how easy it is to steal a few million,” said the 27-year-old who declined to give his name. “You can steal freely until someone notices.”

Reporting by Matthias Williams, Natalia Zinets, Pavel Polityuk and Polina Ivanova in KIEV; Tom Balmforth in MOSCOW; Tom Arnold and Karin Strohecker in LONDON; writing by Polina Ivanova; editing by Matthias Williams and John Stonestreet