Ukrainians are voting Sunday in an extraordinary presidential election set to see a comedian, Volodymyr Zelensky who plays the president in a TV show oust the incumbent in a stunning rebuke to the establishment.
“We have united Ukraine,” said the beaming frontrunner Zelensky, 41, as he cast his ballot in the capital Kiev.
“Ukrainians will win today. Everything will be alright,” he said, wearing a casual suit with a t-shirt and accompanied by his wife.
Zelensky’s bid to lead the country of 45 million people was initially dismissed as a joke when he announced his candidacy on New Year’s Eve.
But all opinion polls now show incumbent President Petro Poroshenko heading for a crushing defeat amid widespread anger over poverty, corruption and war.
The star of the “Servant of the People” sitcom congratulated Ukrainians celebrating Palm Sunday, a week before Orthodox Easter.
He said he listened to Eminem before voting to put himself in a good mood.
Poroshenko, 53, who has argued Zelensky is unfit to be a war-time commander-in-chief, attended a church service with his wife before casting his ballot.
At the polling station he said he hoped Ukrainians would be guided by their common sense when they vote.
“Because this is not funny. Well, at first it can be a bit funny and then it might hurt afterwards.”
Zelensky’s victory would open a new chapter in the history of a country that has gone through two popular uprisings in two decades and is mired in a five-year conflict with separatists in the east.
Voters from Ukrainian-speaking regions in the West to Russian-speaking areas in the war-torn east were casting their ballots from 0500 GMT.
Larisa, a 18-year-old student from the government-held eastern port city of Mariupol, said she voted for Zelensky.
“I think it just cannot get any worse and I hope he’ll live up to his promises,” she told AFP.
Anna, a 24-year-old architect, added: “I hope that everything will be like in his film.”
Supporters say only a fresh face like Zelensky can clean up Ukraine’s murky politics and address a conflict that has claimed some 13,000 lives.
But others doubt the showman will be able to take on the country’s entrenched elite, negotiate with the likes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and stand up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Viktoriya Olomutska in Kiev suggested many were voting for Zelensky’s character in the TV show, which returned for its third season last month, rather than the candidate himself.
“People have gone mad,” said the 39-year-old Poroshenko supporter.
Seventy-eight-year-old Maria added she could not understand how Zelensky seemed to have majority backing.
“There cannot be so many fools in the country,” she fumed. “But no, apparently there are!”
A survey by the Rating pollster this week showed Zelensky winning 73 percent of the vote against 27 percent for Poroshenko.
Exit poll results are expected at 1700 GMT and the first preliminary results several hours later.
The stakes are high for a country dependent on international aid and seen as a buffer between the European Union and Russia.
Poroshenko came to power after a bloody 2014 uprising ousted a Kremlin-backed regime, triggering Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.
But many feel the promises of the pro-Western revolution have been forgotten.