Five things to know about Ukraine’s presidential vote winner

A close look at comedian-turned-politician Volodymyr Zelensky who defeated incumbent President Petro Poroshenko.

Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine
Zelensky was born in the industrial city of Krivy Rig in central Ukraine [Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters]

Kiev, Ukraine – Comedian Volodymyr Zelenskyy has won both rounds of Ukraine’s presidential election with a huge margin, erasing President Petro Poroshenko’s chances of reelection five years after coming to power.

On Sunday, Zelenskyy secured more than 73 percent of ballots in the country’s runoff vote with under 25 percent of voters supporting the incumbent.

Just three weeks ago, on March 31, the political novice came on top among 39 presidential hopefuls in the first round of voting.

Here are some of the details on who he is and how he pulled it off:

Who is Zelenskyy?

The 41-year-old is a Russian-speaking comic, actor and owner of a production company, Kvartal 95.

While he has a law degree from the Kiev National Economic University, he has never practised law. He also has no political experience. 

His lucrative production company produces TV shows, feature films and comedy series. 

Over the last three years, he has been starring in a hit political TV sitcom, the Servant of the People, where he fights corruption as a teacher-turned-president.

He gave his political party the same name as his show.

The millionaire of Jewish descent is married to a Christian and has two children. He refuses to discuss his religion.

Zelenskyy was born in the predominantly Russian-speaking industrial city of Kryvyi Rih in central Ukraine.

Zelenskyy secured more than 73 percent of ballots in the runoff vote [Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters]
Zelenskyy secured more than 73 percent of ballots in the runoff vote [Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters]

How he reached the top job

Zelenskyy announced his candidacy during a televised New Year’s Eve comedy performance.

After formally registering himself with Ukraine’s Central Election Commission, Zelenskyy ran an unorthodox election campaign based on comedy tours and social media, largely shunning journalists and avoiding debates. 

Despite giving no details about how he intended to fix the corruption-riddled and war-torn Ukraine, Zelenskyy soon shot to the top in the country’s opinion polls, benefitting from the Ukrainian’s fatigue of mainstream politicians.

Oleksiy Haran, a professor of comparative politics at the University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, told Al Jazeera that Ukrainians did not appear to distinguish between his TV character and Zelenskyy.

“People projected the image of the fictional president in his movie into the real candidate. This is a psychological phenomenon,” he said.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy wins Ukraine’s presidential vote: Exit polls 2:18

What does he stand for?

Zelenskyy has said that he supports Ukraine’s aspiration to one day join the European Union and NATO.

He holds Russia’s President Vladimir Putin responsible for the war in Ukraine’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk that has killed more than 13,000 people since it erupted in 2014.

Zelenskyy wants Moscow to return Ukraine’s annexed Crimean Peninsula and release 24 Ukrainian sailors captured by the Russian naval forces in the Black Sea last year.

He said on Sunday that Ukraine will continue talking to Russia in the Normandy format, the peace talks that include Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia.

Zelenskyy also said he will reboot the Minsk Agreement that the quartet negotiated in 2015 to secure a ceasefire between Ukraine’s army and the Moscow-backed separatists in the east.

“Our priority number one now is to return all of our prisoners, all of our hostages, prisoners of war,” he said in his victory speech.

Zelenskyy wants Moscow to return Ukraine's annexed Crimean Peninsula [Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters]
Zelenskyy wants Moscow to return Ukraine’s annexed Crimean Peninsula [Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters]

Is Zelenskyy independent?

Many Ukrainians Al Jazeera spoke to in the lead-up to the election feared that Ihor Kolomoisky, a self-exiled oligarch with a grudge against Poroshenko has been backing Zelenskyy.

Kolomoisky owns the television channel that airs Zelenskyy’s shows. According to a study by the Reuters news agency of vehicle registration databases, company ownership documents and photographic records, Kolomoisky and Zelenskyy intersect in other ways as well.

According to the report, the two men have common business partners; Zelenskyy uses security staff who in the past were also seen accompanying Kolomoisky; a former Kolomoisky adviser is on Zelenskyy’s campaign team, and; at least two vehicles used by Zelenskyy and his entourage are owned by people or entities linked to Kolomoisky.

Both Zelenskyy and Kolomoisky have said their relationship is strictly professional.

What’s next for him?

After the inauguration, expected in early June – Zelenskyy has to nominate the country’s prime minister and the cabinet. Within weeks, he will have to jump in election mode again as Ukraine has a parliamentary vote scheduled for October 27.

Without securing a majority in the parliament, Zelenskyy will have no chance of making any changes in the country as his reforms have to be approved by the MPs. 

“Zelenskyy has to hit the ground running as Ukrainians are notoriously fickle in their enthusiasm for new leaders and grow disappointed quickly,” Peter Zalmayev, a Kiev-based political analyst, told Al Jazeera.

“He will have to match his performance in this election at the October parliamentary elections, in order to form a large enough coalition to govern effectively.”

Follow Tamila Varshalomidze on Twitter: @tamila87v

Source: Al Jazeera