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Gloves Come Off As Zelenskiy, Poroshenko Look Ahead To Ukraine Runoff

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko gestures while speaking at his headquarters in Kyiv after the presidential voting on March 31.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko gestures while speaking at his headquarters in Kyiv after the presidential voting on March 31.

KYIV -- The predicted winners of the first round of Ukraine's presidential election came out swinging at their election-night parties in the capital on March 31, looking to land political body blows as focus shifted from dozens of contenders to just two.

In each case, the strategy ahead of a runoff in three weeks' time seemed clear.

"Today a new life starts, without corruption," TV funnyman and political upstart Volodymyr Zelenskiy told his jubilant supporters. It was a clear jab at incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, whose five-year record against corruption has left many Ukrainians unimpressed.

Meanwhile across town at Poroshenko's campaign headquarters, the confectionery mogul who rose to the presidency as a compromise candidate early in Ukraine's ongoing war against Russia-backed separatists was calling for a "total mobilization of Ukrainian patriots."

Alluding to his own and others' suggestions that Zelenskiy owes his political ascendancy to an embittered oligarch with a TV station and a score to settle with the president, Poroshenko reached out to "candidates who did not make it into the second round, to fight against Moscow and the puppet of [Ihor] Kolomoyskiy."

Comic Takes Lead After First Round Of Ukrainian Presidential Election
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Exit polling and preliminary results early in the vote tally pointed to Zelenskiy atop a field of 39 candidates with around 30 percent of the vote, well above Poroshenko's roughly 18 percent but far short of the majority his antiestablishment message needed to attract to avoid a second round on April 21.

Veteran politician and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko looked to be several points behind in all polls, although she and her followers appeared determined to wait out -- and possibly even challenge -- the results.

'Only One Winner'

The eventual winner will inherit an economy that is finally sustaining slow growth but is dragged down by the ongoing conflict and loss of control over swaths in the east, corruption and a lack of reform in key areas, and a perceived lack of ideas for how to move the country forward -- all in a country that is a crucial throughway for natural gas and a key test for European resolve in the face of a seemingly expansionist Russia.

"We will destroy him," was the way Mikhail Fedorov, Zelenskiy's chief digital strategist, described plans for the second round soon after the first exit poll results landed.

After playing a round of table tennis in front of a mob of cameras and reporters at his rowdy campaign headquarters on the banks of Kyiv's Dnieper River, the 41-year-old Zelenskiy took the stage to gloat.

"There are many exit polls -- there is only one winner," he said.

Zelenskiy, who stars in a TV comedy series about a teacher who becomes president after a video denouncing corruption goes viral, had shunned campaign rallies and almost never mentioned Poroshenko since announcing his candidacy on New Year's Eve in a time slot that is typically saved for the head-of-state.

Now, he told reporters at a second press conference before midnight in Kyiv, he was "ready" to debate his opponent.

Meanwhile, with a video circulating online that appeared to show a demoralized crowd of Poroshenko supporters as polling results came out, the incumbent acknowledged the snub from disappointed Ukrainians but vowed to bounce back in Round Two.

The 53-year-old former foreign and trade minister and National Bank Council head said he felt "no euphoria."

"This is a harsh lesson for me and the authorities as a whole," he told supporters. "It is a reason to work on our mistakes."

Hinting at the argument he hopes to make before the second round of voting, Poroshenko appealed to Ukrainians' eagerness to leave behind the war footing that they have been on since Russian troops invaded in 2014, promising to launch "an important stage of restoring Ukrainian sovereignty over the occupied regions of Donbas and Crimea by political and diplomatic means" after April 21.

Poroshenko added later via Twitter, "April 1st is a day of laughter. Let's smile, and enough."

He continued, "Starting April 2nd let's move forward decisively. There's no time for jokes."

Aivaras Abromavicius, a former minister of economy who has advised Zelenskiy, told RFE/RL at the candidate's headquarters that after hearing Poroshenko's remarks he thought the second round would be "very dirty."

"What is very clear is that Poroshenko is a very experienced politician and he has a lot at stake, so he’s not going to surrender easily," Abromavicius said. "He will fight to the bitter end, but I think the outcome will be pretty much like we have today."

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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