Comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who plays a fictional TV president, has won the first round of Ukraine’s election

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At stake is the leadership of a country on the front line of the West’s standoff with Russia after the 2014 Maidan street protests ejected Poroshenko’s Kremlin-friendly predecessor and Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula.

A comedian with a popular anti-corruption message but no political experience took the lead in the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election on Sunday, exit polls showed. Volodymyr Zelenskiy, 41, who plays a fictional president in a TV show, had consistently led opinion polls in a three-horse race against incumbent Petro Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Zelenskiy secured 30.6 percent of votes, compared with Poroshenko’s 17.8 percent, according to an updated exit poll released at 2300 (2000 GMT), three hours after voting closed. No candidate is expected to receive more than half the votes, meaning the election would go to a runoff on April 21. Out of a crowded field of 39 candidates, none of the likely winners wants to move Ukraine back into Russia’s orbit. At stake is the leadership of a country on the front line of the West’s standoff with Russia after the 2014 Maidan street protests ejected Poroshenko’s Kremlin-friendly predecessor and Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula.

“A new life is beginning, a normal life, a life without corruption, without bribes — life in a new country, the country of our dreams,” Zelenskiy said after casting his vote earlier in the day.

Poroshenko has fought to integrate the country with the European Union and NATO, while strengthening the military which is fighting Kremlin-backed separatists in the east of the country. After voting alongside his family the incumbent spoke about how a fair vote was essential for Ukraine’s progress. “This is an absolutely necessary condition for our moving forward, for the return of Ukraine into the family of European nations and our membership of the European Union and NATO.” Voting around the country offered a snapshot of Ukraine’s recent history. Soldiers lined up to vote in makeshift polling stations in the east. Voters formed long lines outside polling stations in neighbouring EU member Poland, where between one and two million Ukrainians emigrated, many in search of jobs and higher wages. Poroshenko called the election “a crossing of the Rubicon of not returning either to the Soviet Union or to the Russian empire.” Pushing the use of the Ukrainian language and instrumental in establishing a new independent Orthodox church, the 53-year-old confectionary magnate has cast himself as the man to prevent Ukraine again becoming a Russian vassal state. But reforms crucial to keep foreign aid flowing have been patchy. Conflict in the eastern Donbass region has killed 13,000 people in five years and rumbles on despite Poroshenko’s promise to end it within weeks. Frustration over low living standards and pervasive corruption has left the door open for Zelenskiy.

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