- Video report by ITV News Correspondent Martin Stew
A comedian with no political experience has won the most votes in Ukraine’s presidential election, according to an exit poll.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy beat incumbent president Petro Poroshenko into second place, closely followed by former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, but fell well short of the absolute majority needed to win outright in the first round.
Former Ms Tymoshenko, who is making her third run at the presidency, is disputing the predictions but Mr Zelenskiy said he had made a major step toward victory after the exit polls results were released.
As voters headed to the ballot box on Sunday, Mr Zelenskiy provided a moment of light relief when he almost walked into the wrong stall and had to be stopped by loud cheers from the surrounding crowd.
The comedian is riding high with a predicted 20.9% share of the vote, ahead of sitting president Petro Poroshenko, with a 13.7% share.
Mr Zelenskiy, 41, is famous for his TV portrayal of a school teacher who becomes president after a video of him denouncing corruption goes viral.
Ukrainians will choose from 39 candidates for a president they hope can guide the country of more than 42 million out of troubles including endemic corruption, a seemingly intractable war with Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east and a struggling economy.
While the poll released on Friday by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology puts Mr Zelenskiy ahead, he appears to be falling far short of enough support to win in the first round.
Even before he announced his candidacy, his name was turning up high in pre-election public opinion polls, with potential voters seemingly encouraged by his Servant Of The People TV series – which became the name of his party.
Like his TV character, Mr Zelenskiy has focused strongly on corruption.
He proposes a lifetime ban on holding public office for anyone convicted of corruption and calls for a tax amnesty under which someone holding hidden assets would declare them, be taxed at 5% and face no other measures.
He also calls for direct negotiation with Russia on ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
If no candidate gets an absolute majority of the votes on Sunday, a run-off between the top two will be held on April 21. Nearly a quarter of those who intend to vote say they remain undecided, according to the survey.
All the leading candidates advocate Ukraine eventually joining Nato and the European Union, and the election will be closely watched by those organisations for indications of whether Ukraine is developing democratic processes.
Concern about the election’s freedom and fairness spiked this week after the country’s interior minister said he was looking into hundreds of claims that campaigners for Mr Poroshenko and Ms Tymoshenko were offering money to voters to support their candidates.
Mr Poroshenko, the 53-year-old incumbent, came to power in 2014 with the image of a “good oligarch”. The bulk of his fortune came from the Roshen confectionery company, hence his nickname, the Chocolate King.
Critics denounce him for having done little to combat Ukraine’s endemic corruption and for failing to end the war in the east.
He has made economic reforms that pleased international lenders, but that burdened Ukrainians with higher utility bills.
Ms Tymoshenko is playing heavily to the economic distress of millions of Ukrainians. She has promised to reduce prices for household gas by 50% within a month of taking office, calling the price hikes introduced by Mr Poroshenko “economic genocide”.