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KIEV, Ukraine – Volodymyr Zelenskiy has no political experience, but that's no problem for the people of Ukraine who have already seen him performing the role of president.
In a striking example of fiction morphing into reality, the 41-year-old comic actor seems set to take the top office for real, following in the footsteps of the man he plays in a wildly popular television series — an ordinary teacher who becomes an unlikely president and succeeds in bringing the country together.
Zelenskiy took a commanding lead against the incumbent in Sunday's presidential election, putting him in a strong position for the runoff in three weeks' time.
He is the latest candidate with little or no political experience to fare well at the ballot boxes, reinforcing the trend in Europe and beyond for anti-establishment leaders. Just a day before Ukraine's election, a liberal environmental activist won a runoff in Slovakia to become the country's first female president.
Zelenskiy is much more moderate than far-right populists who have had recent success in elections, and he appealed for reconciliation with separatist-held eastern Ukraine.
"A new life begins," Zelenskiy said in his trademark raspy voice after the vote. "A life without corruption and without bribes. A life in a nation of dreams comes true."
His easygoing manner and snappy talk on the campaign trail strongly resembled his character in "Servant of the People" — a schoolteacher catapulted into the presidential seat after a student's video of him blasting official corruption goes viral. Zelenskiy has, however, refused to hold standard campaign meetings with voters, and his political program remains a mystery.
The TV series that premiered in the fall of 2015 painted a grotesque satirical picture of Ukraine's officialdom, complete with easily recognizable parodies of serving politicians. It has been immensely popular, attracting up to 20 million viewers in the nation of 42 million — a sign that it hit a nerve in a country fed up with endemic corruption and grinding poverty.
Zelenskiy's character, Vasyl Holoborodko, at first looks too naive and soft-hearted to survive in the cruel world of Ukraine's corruption-ridden elite. But he learns quickly and soon turns into a strong leader capable of defeating his wily and experienced foes without losing his integrity. The series is full of profanities and crude humor, but Holoborodko turns serious when he talks about the country's challenges.
The latest season of "Servant of the People," shown just days before the election, opens with Holoborodko thrown into prison on trumped-up charges fabricated by his pitiless foes.
Inmates hired by his enemies try to kill him, but he survives and gets out, to find Ukraine sunken deeper in poverty and broken into multiple fiefdoms — in a nod to the ongoing separatist conflict in the east. On screen, Zelenskiy's character regains the presidential post and leads the country to peace, prosperity and reunification.
These are the challenges incumbent President Petro Poroshenko has sorely failed to meet, and Zelenskiy's electoral success clearly reflects public aspirations that he could be just as successful in real life as his character was on screen.
Ukraine has suffered from economic meltdown, endemic corruption and a spiraling conflict with Russia-sponsored separatists in eastern Ukraine that has killed 13,000 people since 2014. Its hopes for integration into the European Union and NATO remain as elusive as ever, and there is no realistic way for Ukraine to reclaim control over the Crimean Peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014 in a move that most of the world sees as illegal.
For those who cast ballots for Zelenskiy, his lack of political skills is a major advantage, a welcome break from the cast of familiar political figures associated with the country's woes. Both incumbent Petro Poroshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, who polled second and third, respectively, have been on the political stage for more than a decade.
Born to a professorial family in the industrial city of Kryvyi Rih when Ukraine still was part of the Soviet Union, Zelenskiy is a native Russian speaker, something that helped him sweep the vote in central, eastern and southern regions where many speak the language.
The comedian has had a low-key campaign. In his rare public appearances, Zelenskiy wouldn't offer his views on specific political or economic issues, promising to rely on a team of professionals.
Zelenskiy rejects Poroshenko's claim that his lack of experience will make him unable to stand up to Russia, pledging to firmly defend Ukraine's interests. He charged late Sunday that he will make sure that Russia not only returns Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine held by pro-Russia rebels, but pays compensation for the "disgusting and horrible" land grabs.
In Moscow, lawmakers and commentators have described Zelenskiy's strong showing as a sign of public disillusionment with the current government, but most predict that the tug-of-war between the two neighbors will continue.
Poroshenko has sought to disparage Zelenskiy, accusing him of being a "puppet" of self-exiled billionaire businessman Ihor Kolomoyskyi, whose station has aired "Servant of the People" and given him the platform to announce his candidacy in a New Year's speech. Zelenskiy, who has bitingly mocked the president in his stand-up performances, shot back by ridiculing Poroshenko and his associates accused of corruption.
Kolomoyskyi, who lives in Israel, denied bankrolling Zelenskiy's bid, but hailed him as a bright and honest man of a new generation who can deliver what the country needs.
"He's absolutely independent," Kolomoyskyi said of Zelenskiy in a recent interview released by the UNIAN news agency. "His quick reaction, humor and a broad horizon make him hard to beat in an argument."
Volodymyr Fesenko, the head of the Kiev-based Penta Center independent think tank, said that Kolomoyskyi hopes that Zelenskiy's victory will help him regain his clout, but added that Zelenskiy could distance himself from the tycoon.
"Kolomoyskyi will try to fill Zelenskiy's team with his people and fill Zelenskiy's head with his ideas, but he could have problems with it," he said.
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.