Meet the Comic Who Could Become Ukraine's President After Playing Him on TV

Sergei SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images
Volodymyr Zelenskiy in the TV series 'Servant of the People'

Volodymyr Zelenskiy — who played Eastern European country's leader in a TV comedy — is leading in the polls.

Ukrainian comedian and actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy played a teacher in the popular TV comedy series Servant of the People, who is unexpectedly elected president after an anti-corruption rant of his goes viral.

Now life is imitating art: Zelenskiy, who is also head of Kiev-based theater and film comedy studio Kvartal 95, is actually running for president for real — and he is leading the polls.

According to a poll conducted by the Kiev-based organization Peredovye pravovye initsiativy, among 164,590 Ukrainians on March 16-17, about 34 percent of respondents are going to cast their votes for Zelenskiy, followed by incumbent president Petro Poroshenko (14.2 percent) and veteran opposition politician Yulia Timoshenko (12.9 percent). In addition, 70 percent of the people polled said they would vote for Zelenskiy if he makes it to the second round of the election.

The election, scheduled for March 31, is largely seen as a key democratic test in a former Soviet state riven by corruption and a Russian-backed rebel insurgency in its eastern provinces.

Zelenskiy, 41, is currently playing a series of comic routines to adoring crowds at venues around Ukraine in what are described as thinly veiled campaign tub-thumpers. He has a string of popular one-liners, including: "Why does [Ukrainian presidential incumbent Petro] Poroshenko want a second term? So he doesn't get a [prison] term."

Given that incumbent Poroshenko, a chocolate factory magnate and former defense minister, has been hounded by corruption allegations, Zelenskiy also has more sober, though just as edgy campaign slogans. One reads: "When spring comes, we'll start planting," a thinly-veiled reference to arresting corrupt politicians and public officials.

Zelenskiy has even established a party for his presidential bid that takes the same name as the TV comedy that helped make him famous — Servant of the People. The show's sole season was aired in Ukraine in 2015. It is currently available in an English subtitled version on Netflix.

His manifesto includes pledges to serve only one term and to hold a national referendum on key issues, as well as plans to lift immunity from prosecution for lawmakers, judges and even the president himself.

It is not clear who exactly is financially backing Zelenskiy. Ivan Bakanov, his campaign manager, recently denied reports that Ihor Kolomoiskyi, the wealthy owner of TV channel 1+1, which aired Servant of the People, was behind the actor's presidential bid. He was quoted by news agency TASS as saying that Zelenskiy's campaign has been funded by regular people and the total campaign budget amounted to about 100 million hryvnias ($3.7 million).

Meanwhile, Zelenskiy's campaign staff features several prominent Ukrainian veteran politicians, such as legislator Sergei Leshchenko, former finance minister Alexander Danilyuk and former economic development minister Aivaras Abromavicius.

"[Zelenskiy] does not seem to have very strong views about most things," Abromavicius told British newspaper The Guardian. "I see that as an advantage. Those views will be shaped, if he becomes president, by someone around him, and the question is by whom. That is the key question."

Apparently, Zelenskiy will have to part with his Kvartal 95 if he is elected president. Incidentally, the studio may already be looking for a possible replacement. Last week, Ukrainian media reported that actor Vladimir Martynets is joining the studio.