Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian without political experience, who plays the country's president on a television program, has won the Ukrainian presidential election in a landslide, according to a national exit poll. The poll found that Zelensky received 73% of the vote, sweeping away the incumbent President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, who conceded the defeat.
At an election campaign party in a pub with hundreds of journalists, Zelensky declared victory. When the results of the exit poll were announced, confetti was shot in the air, and Zelensky thanked his volunteers who said they had "protected the Ukraine." Poroshenko announced that he admitted shortly thereafter.
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Speaking to journalists and a handful of lawyers, Zelenskiy welcomed his victory as a symbol of political change for other countries in the region.
"I am not yet officially the President, but as a Ukrainian citizen, I can look at all the countries in the post-Soviet Union, everything is possible!"
The victory of Zelensky comes before the deep dissatisfaction of the Ukrainians with their political establishment and the fatigue of the war. He promised to crack down on corruption and establish the political elite that is considered corrupt and indifferent to Ukrainians' concerns.
In polling stations on Sunday, few voters expressed much affection to Zelensky and said they instead supported him as a facilitator of change.
"I'm looking for a new face," said Tatiana Zakharenko, 50, an economist who coordinates in the center of Kiev. "We need a change."
The victory of Zelensky seemed almost twice as many votes as Poroshenko since the first round of elections three weeks ago, when he beat a field of 40 other candidates. The landslide on Sunday was a clear rejection of the incumbent president, a 53-year-old billionaire who came to power following mass protests in 2014, overthrowing the then Russian-backed Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych. Poroshenko had acted as a war leader and applied as a defender of the Ukrainian identity against Russia. He warned that Zelensky's experience would mean a victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
However, Poroshenko could not overcome the widespread belief that he had failed to combat deep-rooted corruption and continued the tradition of Ukraine to enrich the Allies with power.
Those who voted for Zelensky said their disappointment with Poroshenko was so great that they were willing to take a chance.
"Poroshenko has taken away from people the most important thing. He has taken hope from the people ", Ruslan Kotsaba, a journalist who was charged with high treason because he had criticized the military draft ordered by Poroshenko. "At least with Zelensky it's at least a kind of hope."
Some said that in view of the corrupt state of Ukrainian politics, the lack of experience of Zelenskiy is actually a plus. "On the one hand, he is not the best president for me, but at least he has no experience with corruption or all the things that our politicians have," said Anna Dysheleva, marketing manager, after she had chosen with her little son.
Few know what this change means in practice. In addition to the promise to eradicate corrupt officials and find an end to the war, Zelensky has pursued almost no detailed policy. He also shunned the media and rejected interviews. The last interview he gave was a journalist who had won a table tennis competition on the evening of his election victory in the first round of the election. On Sunday the same competition took place at the winner's party.
Instead, Zelensky largely advocated a version of his personality on-screen, hosting stand-up comedy shows instead of political rallies. In his "Servant of the People" show, he plays a schoolteacher who is catapulted into the presidency as his reputation for corruption becomes viral. Once president, he renounces the traditional advantages of his office and fights against oligarchs, who are usually in charge of politics in Ukraine.
In reality, Zelensky comes to power with a relationship with one of the most controversial Ukrainian oligarch, Ihor Kolomoisky. Many of those who voted for Zelensky expressed reservations about Kolomoisky, whose TV channel 1 + 1 is broadcasting his show and who supported his campaign.
Kolomoisky was in exile and spent his time in Israel since the Ukrainian authorities nationalized his bank Private Bank, accusing him and his associates of stealing billions of dollars from his account holders.
Many now fear that Kolomoisky will bring Zelensky to power. A court in Kiev ruled this week that the privatization of the Privat Bank was illegal, further disturbing the critique of Zelensky's criticism.
Many who voted for him said, however, in Ukraine, every candidate would have some kind of oligarchy support. "I think we can live with it," said Evgeny Kozhevnikov, a 34-year-old engineer.
Zelensky himself has repeatedly said that he will be his own man, promising to jail anyone who violated the law. He succeeded in winning over many activists and liberal reformers of the country, who played an important role in the 2014 revolution and its aftermath, and whose promises remain unfinished. Some of them, including former ministers, have tried to advise Zelensky on the completion of his team.
The prominent liberal journalist and Member of Parliament Serhi Leshchenko said he believed that Zelensky's great achievement would strengthen his independence. At the Zelensky victory celebration, Leshchenko said that 75% of the votes were "more than enough to be independent". Leshchenko also believed that there was a great opportunity for reformers to join the government of Zelenskiy.
"There is a huge room for people to join their team in a reform-oriented orientation," Leshchenko said. "I believe that he is a responsible, reliable person."
The challenges he faces as a political novice, however, are enormous. Those who voted against Zelensky worry about what his election will mean for Ukraine's relations with Russia. Poroshenko has claimed the inexperience of Zelensky and his moderate attitude towards Russia – where he is also popular as a comedian – will mean.
Before his election on Sunday, Poroshenko said the possibility of Zelensky's election was "not funny," adding that Ukraine could possibly "return to the Russian Empire."
However, many voters in Ukraine say that they are ready to see an attempt to solve the violent impasse in the East, where the shelling takes place on a daily basis and victims are killed every month.
However, it remains unclear how Zelensky would try. He said earlier that he would seek direct negotiations with the separatist forces supporting Moscow. After his victory, however, he told reporters that he would continue the talks in the so-called Normandy format with France and Germany and continue with the Minsk agreements, but a peace plan that was implemented in February 2015 is long – deadlocked.
Despite the ambivalence over their choices, many in Ukraine expressed their satisfaction that the elections, while often chaotic, were truly competitive. Millions watched a stadium debate this week among the candidates, more akin to opening a boxing match than a traditional political stance.
Diana Gabovich, a young woman who voted in Kiev, was one of the few voters with whom ABC News spoke, and who favored Zelensky's unpleasant support.
"The debate went well – I laughed," she said. "We will all laugh the whole country in a few months."