Jewish Comedian Is Top Vote-getter in First Round of Ukraine’s Presidential Election

Volodymyr Zelensky will face either incumbent Petro Poroshenko or former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko in a run-off on April 21

Volodymyr Zelensky surrounded by cameramen and photographers adjusts his tie as he plays table tennis with a journalist in Kiev on March 31, 2019.
Genya SAVILOV / AFP

A Ukrainian comedian, who is Jewish, was the top vote-getter in the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election, according to early results.

With over 70 percent of the polling stations counted, Volodymyr Zelenskiy had 30 percent support in Sunday's vote, while President Petro Poroshenko was a distant second with just over 16 percent.

The strong showing for the 41-year-old Zelenskiy reflects the public longing for a fresh leader who has no links to Ukraine's corruption-ridden political elite and can offer a new approach to settling the grinding five-year conflict with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine that has left 13,000 dead since 2014.

At least half of the vote is required to win. A run-off is scheduled for April 21.

>> Inside the extremist group that dreams of ruling Ukraine ■ Ukraine's far right is growing increasingly violent - Why aren't local Jews concerned?

Zelensky will face either Poroshenko or former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, who is in third place with 13 percent support according to early results.

Timoshenko also is rumored to be Jewish.

Zelensky, 41, whom the local media call “the Ukrainian Donald Trump,” portrays a history teacher turned president in his hit television show “Servant of the People.”

Born in Kryvyi Rih, near Dnipro, to a Jewish family of scientists, Zelensky has not mentioned his Jewish identity in interviews before or during the campaign, which critics say is purposefully vague.

Zelenskiy made fighting 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.