Kiev, Ukraine – Ukraine is voting in hotly-contested presidential election with political novice Volodymyr Zelensky poised to win over 38 other candidates, including President Petro Poroshenko and opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.
Sunday’s vote is testing the war-torn country’s democracy for the first time since the so-called Revolution of Dignity brought Poroshenko in power in 2014.
The voting stations opened at 8am (05:00 GMT) and will close at 8pm (17:00 GMT).
The elections are monitored by observers from 18 countries as well as 139 Ukrainian civil society organisations, according to Ukraine’s Central Election Commission (CEC).
An early count is expected on Monday. If none of the candidates secures 50 percent of the vote, a runoff between the top two candidates will take place on April 21.
The latest survey shows Zelensky, a 41-year-old comic who is best known for playing a president in the political comedy, Servant of the People, leading the vote with 20.6 percent.
He is followed in the opinion polls by Tymoshenko, a political heavyweight who served twice as prime minister under different presidents in 2005 and 2007, with about 13 percent.
Poroshenko, who is projected to finish third with 12.9 percent, said last week he would accept the result of the vote, “whoever wins”.
At a polling station in central Kiev, Sviatoslav Yurash, a 23-year-old working for Zelensky’s election campaign team, said he was backing the comic because “he will be pro-market, pro-Ukraine, pro-Europe, pro-NATO”.
Oleksandr Bondarenko, a 28-year-old software developer, said she had voted for Tymoshenko “because with her in the second round, we will have a better chance of defeating Poroshenko”.
“This vote is very important for us because President Poroshenko has to leave. A lot of issues came up with his policies, especially with corruption,” said Bondarenko.
Tetiana Boriak, 37, who came to the polling station with her husband and toddler, lamented the absence of candidates caring about female rights.
“There are some female candidates on the ballot, but being female doesn’t mean that you will fight for women’s rights,” she said.
Boriak said she voted for Poroshenko, according to her other priority – Ukraine’s resistance to Russia.
“He is the only candidate who will resist the way I think is correct,” she said. “I do not think that other candidates will be able to negotiate with [Russia’s President Vladimir] Putin. Poroshenko is the only one who will resist the way I think is correct.”
Larysa Smirnova, 77, pensioner, said she was “voting so that people’s lives improve”.
“We don’t like the current government. Tymoshenko can change everything. She is a very clever, educated and strong person who loves people,” she said.
Olena Peftiiva, 53, came to the polling station not only to cast her ballot but also to make sure that her deceased husband’s ballot is not used for rigging the elections.
“My husband has been dead for 10 years. But his election registration confirmation arrived at my address. This has not happened during previous polls. I came to the polling station to make sure that his ballot is destroyed,” she said.
Poroshenko, 53, who was elected with almost 55 percent of votes in 2014, seems to have failed to rally his electorate despite his efforts to be seen as a passionate fighter for the country’s territorial unity as well as the champion of Ukraine’s dream of integration with the European Union and NATO.
Over the last five years, he has reinforced the Ukrainian army and ratified the Association Agreement with the European Union, the document that enabled Ukrainians to trade with and travel to Europe without restrictions.
The incumbent president also secured the independence of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church from its Russian counterpart.
But he failed to rid the country of corruption or recover money stolen from Ukraine’s coffers before he came to power.
The elections are being held as the country is still at war with Moscow-backed rebels that has killed more than 13,000 since it broke out in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions five years ago.
The conflict followed Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 which in turn came after Ukraine overthrew Moscow-backed leader Viktor Yanukovich earlier that year.
Several millions of the approximately 35 million eligible voters are unable or unwilling to cast their ballots in the occupied territories.
Follow Al Jazeera’s Tamila Varshalomidze on Twitter @tamila87v