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story.lead_photo.caption Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, reacts as he responds to a journalist question during a press conference, after the presidential elections in Kiev, Ukraine, Sunday, March. 31, 2019. Exit polls indicated Zelenskiy would get about 30 percent of the vote, far short of the absolute majority needed to win the first round. Most exit polls said incumbent Petro Poroshenko received the second-biggest support, which would put him and Zelenskiy in a runoff on April 21. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

KIEV, Ukraine -- Early results in Ukraine's presidential election on Sunday show a comedian with no political experience as the early favorite to make it to the April 21 runoff.

The country's elections commission said that with a little more than 1 percent of the ballots counted, Volodymyr Zelenskiy had 27 percent of the vote, with incumbent President Petro Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko each about 10 percentage points behind and battling for second place.

Final results were expected to be announced this morning.

An exit poll by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology and the Razumkov public opinion organization had Zelenskiy leading the field of 39 candidates with 30.4 percent of the vote, more than 12 percentage points ahead of Poroshenko. The poll claimed a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.

Zelenskiy, 41, stars in a TV sitcom about a teacher who becomes president after a video of him denouncing corruption goes viral.

Like the popular character he plays, Zelenskiy, 41, made corruption a focus of his candidacy. He proposed a lifetime ban on holding public office for anyone convicted of graft. He also called for direct negotiations with Russia on ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

"A new life, a normal life is starting," Zelenskiy said after casting his ballot in Kiev. "A life without corruption, without bribes."

His lack of political experience helped his popularity with voters in the country of 42 million people. Many citizens are disillusioned with the country's political elite and coping with endemic corruption, a struggling economy and a seemingly intractable conflict with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine that has killed 13,000 people since 2014.

"Zelenskiy has shown us on the screen what a real president should be like," said voter Tatiana Zinchenko, 30, who cast her ballot for the comedian. "He showed what the state leader should aspire for -- fight corruption by deeds, not words, help the poor, control the oligarchs."

The election was shadowed by allegations of widespread vote buying. Police said they had received more than 2,100 complaints of violations on voting day alone in addition to hundreds of earlier voting fraud claims, including bribery attempts and removing ballots from polling places.

Poroshenko said "I feel no kind of euphoria" after the exit poll results were announced.

"I critically and soberly understand the signal that society gave today to the acting authorities," he said.

Poroshenko, 53, a confectionary tycoon when he was elected five years ago, pushed successfully for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to be recognized as self-standing rather than a branch of the Russian church.

However, he saw his approval rating sink as Ukraine's economy struggled and living standards fell. Poroshenko campaigned on promises to defeat the rebels in the east and to wrest back control of Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014 in a move that has drawn sanctions against Russia from the United States and the European Union.

Speaking at a polling station Sunday, the president echoed his campaign promises of taking Ukraine into the EU and NATO.

The president's priorities persuaded schoolteacher Andriy Hristenko, 46, to vote for him.

"Poroshenko has done a lot. He created our own church, bravely fought with Moscow and is trying to open the way to the EU and NATO," Hristenko said.

Ukraine's former prime minister, Tymoshenko, shaped her message around the economic distress of millions in the country.

"Ukraine has sunk into poverty and corruption during the last five years, but every Ukrainian can put an end to it now," she said after voting Sunday.

During the campaign, Tymoshenko denounced price increases introduced by Poroshenko as "economic genocide," and she promised to reduce prices for household gas by 50 percent within a month of taking office.

"I don't need a bright future in 50 years," said Olha Suhiy, 58, a cook who supported Tymoshenko. "I want hot water and heating to cost less tomorrow."

The incumbent president has described both Zelenskiy and Tymoshenko as puppets of self-exiled billionaire businessman Igor Kolomoyskyi, and both candidates have denied the charges.

Many political observers have described the presidential election as a battle between Ukraine's president and Kolomoyskyi. They note that just days before the election, Kolomoyskyi's TV channel began airing a new season of Servant of the People, the series in which Zelenskiy plays Ukraine's corruption-fighting president.

Information for this article was contributed by Mstyslav Chernov, Jim Heintz and Vladimir Isachenkov of The Associated Press.

A Section on 04/01/2019

Print Headline: Sitcom star ahead in Ukraine election

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