Until January, Yulia Tymoshenko led polls as the most experienced challenger. Volodymyr Zelensky’s unlikely presidential run has upended the race.
Anastasia Taylor-Lind for TIME

She Was Next in Line to Be the President. He Plays One on TV. Who Will Win Ukraine's Election?

March 28, 2019

At first it was hard to tell whether the clip was serious. Standing next to a Christmas tree, Volodymyr Zelensky, one of the most famous comedians in Ukraine, posted a video on New Year’s Eve announcing his bid for the presidency. Most people in Ukraine already knew him as the guy who plays the President on television. In his hit sitcom, Servant of the People, he stars as a history teacher who gets elected by accident and becomes the only honest leader in a system full of crooks.

But his real-life campaign was no joke. Zelensky has been the front runner in the race since January. In most surveys, roughly twice as many people say they will vote for him as for his closest rivals during the first round of voting on March 31. Polls suggest he would also beat any challenger in the runoff set for April 21, when Zelensky is expected to face the incumbent, President Petro Poroshenko, a candy magnate who has led Ukraine through five years of conflict with Russia.

The matchup between them might seem amusing, as opposed to terrifying, were it not for the fault lines that run through Ukraine. The conflict along the border with Russia has already claimed over 13,000 lives. More than a million people have fled the fighting. The U.S. and its allies have sent weapons to help defend Ukraine and imposed sanctions to punish Russia. The resulting standoff has brought the Cold War back to life along the eastern edge of Europe, and the next Ukrainian President will need to keep it from turning hot.

Zelensky says he’ll manage it. “Try not to worry,” he told TIME in his dressing room one night in March after the premiere of his new variety show in Kiev. “We’ll figure it out.”

Zelensky performs at his televised comedy sketch show in Kiev on March 13.
Anastasia Taylor-Lind for TIME

But what exactly happens if he doesn’t? Five years on from the revolution on Maidan Square, where police killed scores of protesters before the old regime collapsed, the new one in Kiev remains mired in corruption, despised by its people and one skirmish away from being invaded by the nuclear power next door. The rumble of that war has always risked drawing in the U.S. and Europe. But the more likely outcome if the fighting drags on is what diplomats call “Ukraine fatigue” — the deepening sense in foreign capitals that the country is a lost cause, too dysfunctional to save from Russia’s clutches.

Zelensky might be the one to prove them wrong. With help from some savvy advisers and, at least according to his opponents, the backing of an oligarch who is wanted in Ukraine over a multi­billion-dollar fraud, he has built a campaign that humiliated the elites by harnessing the nation’s fury against them. No other politician (except perhaps the former reality-TV star who occupies the Oval Office) has provided a truer test of the theory that politics in our age is just a form of show business.

It certainly feels that way to Zelensky’s rivals. “It’s not just Ukraine. This is a trend all over the world,” says Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Prime Minister who is now polling in second place. “It’s the total degeneration of representative democracy.” With the right spin machine and enough money to manipulate voters on social media, she says, “You could make a Senator out of a horse.”

Or a President out of a comic. And why not? In a system as corrupt as the one in Ukraine, Zelensky may be right to treat political experience as a liability. He says he plans to “crowdsource” ideas for running the country. He has declined to take part in debates or publish a detailed electoral platform. Instead he has focused on entertainment. The third season of Servant of the People — in which his character (spoiler alert) saves Ukraine from ruin — is due to drop in its entirety a few days before the election, giving voters just enough time to binge-watch it before heading to the polls.

In lieu of rallies, Zelensky is also touring a variety show complete with comedians, dancers and at least one Playboy Playmate. He urged the crowd on opening night not to think too hard about the upcoming vote. “No campaigning tonight,” he said. “It’s just a show. Besides, you paid money for it.” After a pause to let the weirdness of it all sink in, he added, “Who’s ever heard of such a thing.”

The audience watches Zelensky perform.
Anastasia Taylor-Lind for TIME
Zelensky, center, watches from the wings as his colleagues perform.
Anastasia Taylor-Lind for TIME

The battle for the presidency once looked like an easy win for Ukraine’s most powerful woman. Tymoshenko was leading in the polls last year because no other candidate could claim her credentials: two terms as Prime Minister, two campaigns for the presidency, two years behind bars as a prisoner of conscience and two popular uprisings that saw protesters carry her portrait like a talisman against corruption.

Her office in Kiev looks like a walk-in résumé. The walls are plastered with photos of her leading the Orange Revolution to victory in 2004. There’s a vitrine full of gifts from the envoys of China and a framed photo of her with the original Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, the U.K. Prime Minister. On Tymoshenko’s desk, beside a portrait of her daughter, stands a picture of her with Donald Trump at his Inauguration, the blond crown of her braid somehow outshining the mane of the U.S. President.

Still, she doesn’t fault Ukrainians for supporting Zelensky. “We can’t blame people for this,” she says one afternoon in March, when polls had her ahead of the President, suggesting she might be the one to face the comedian in a runoff vote. “Their outrage is a sign of powerlessness,” she says. “They are so disappointed, so unhappy with the system that they start looking for new ways out. And when they don’t find that, the rise of ­Zelenskies is like a protest, a response to the feeling of hopelessness.”

That feeling has indeed become common here in Ukraine. According to the World Bank, the economy has shrunk by nearly half since 2014, when Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his troops to seize the prime Ukrainian tourist destination of Crimea and its factories and coal mines in the east. The national currency lost about 70% of its value in the year after the war, and hasn’t recovered. In a Gallup survey published in March, only 9% of Ukrainians expressed trust in their government, lower than in any other nation in the world.

Ask them why, and a likely answer will be corruption, whose scale has long evoked as much awe as disgust in Ukraine. The friends and allies of Viktor Yanukovych, who served as President from 2010 to 2014, stand accused of siphoning at least $37 billion of government money into offshore bank accounts.

Today, Yanukovych is best remembered for two things among his people: the revolution he sparked in 2014 by choosing to ally with Russia instead of integrating with the European Union; and the palace he built for himself while in office, an almost comically luxurious compound near Kiev.

In the final days of the revolution five years ago, when police snipers killed scores of demonstrators and precipitated the collapse of the regime, Yanukovych packed some valuables into a helicopter and fled to Russia, where he resides today under Putin’s protection. After a short bout of looting, the revolutionaries who chased him away decided to turn his villa into a “museum of corruption,” a place for tourists to marvel at his greed, taking selfies next to the faux Greek ruins Yanukovych had built to serve as lawn furniture. “All the building power of the state was devoted to erecting this place,” says Lyudmila Anatolievna, a tour guide at the estate’s private sauna complex, where the floors are inlaid with semi­precious stones.

One of the first acts of Ukraine’s new leaders in 2014 was to set Tymoshenko free. She had served about two years out of a seven-year sentence handed down in 2011 for abuse of office, a punishment widely seen as part of Yanukovych’s vendetta against her. But even after that stint as a political prisoner, Tymoshenko could not regain much public trust. The fortune she made in the energy trade in the 1990s, along with an unfavorable gas deal she signed with Putin while serving as Prime Minister in 2009, caused many Ukrainians to see her as an oligarch and a traitor. That history also came with an unflattering nickname: the Gas Princess.

“It was Tymoshenko who broke the rules,” Yanukovych told TIME inside the presidential palace in 2012, when he was at the height of his power. “And judgment will come.”

Tymoshenko at her party headquarters in Kiev on March 13.
Anastasia Taylor-Lind for TIME

It came two years later for Yanukovych. But Tymoshenko did not escape it, either. She won only 13% of the vote in the elections that followed the revolution. Her approval ratings have barely budged above that level since. When asked about the reasons, Tymoshenko singles out one man for blame — the U.S. political consultant Paul Manafort, who worked for Yanukovych and his allies for more than a decade before he became Donald Trump’s campaign chairman in 2016. “For money,” Tymoshenko says bitterly, “he worked against me for over 10 years, distorting my name, humiliating me, and trying to smear my work and myself as a politician.”

Judgment has come for Manafort, too. As part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential race, a judge in Washington, D.C., sentenced him to six years in prison for illegally lobbying on behalf of the Yanukovych regime. Much of that lobbying was done in defense of Tymoshenko’s imprisonment. So she felt a sense of satisfaction when the verdict came down. “Everything becomes clear eventually,” she tells TIME a few days later. But the stains on her reputation have never quite washed off.

Zelensky is, by contrast, a blank slate when it comes to politics. Born and raised in the industrial backwater of Kryvyi Rih (“Crooked Horn”), which he has ­described as “a city of bandits,” Zelensky and his childhood friends formed their comedy troupe at the end of the 1990s and named it Kvartal 95 (District 95) after the neighborhood where they grew up.

The troupe has grown into the biggest production studio in the country. Its offices take up the top three floors of a high-rise in Kiev, with a view onto the TV tower that beams their lineup across the capital. “Our work hasn’t changed much since we went into politics,” says Vadym Pereverzev, a co-founder of the studio. “We went from writing jokes to writing slogans. The difference is not that big.”

A lot of their comedy feeds into the campaign, either by deflecting criticism of Zelensky or casting him as the image of humility and strength. His presidential character in Servant of the People receives pep talks from his visions of Abraham Lincoln and Julius Caesar before forcing Ukraine’s politicians to ride bicycles to work. “This makes our opponents go apoplectic,” says Zelensky’s campaign manager, Dmitry Razumkov. “But legally it does not count as campaigning.”

Their main vulnerability throughout the race has been Zelensky’s relationship with Ihor Kolomoisky, the oligarch whose television channel airs most of his material, including Servant of the People. Though he still runs most of his businesses from exile in Israel, Kolomoisky is a wanted man both in Russia and Ukraine.

As the conflict between the two nations escalated in 2014, authorities in Moscow issued a warrant for Kolomoisky’s arrest on charges of engaging in “prohibited methods of warfare” — a reference to the private militias that Kolomoisky formed to defend his assets and fight off the Russian invasion.

In Ukraine, his legal troubles began in 2016, when the government paid a bailout worth $5.6 billion to rescue and nationalize Kolomoisky’s bank. He has since been charged with defrauding the bank for vast sums of money. The billionaire has denied these and other charges, and he did not reply to interview requests from TIME. But many of his opponents have pointed out how useful it would be for him to install Zelensky as President. “It’s so obvious they’re in cahoots,” Tymoshenko told me.

The comedian’s response? “I’m nobody’s puppet.” Much harder to deny is his partnership with Kolomoisky’s television network, whose news division has also been shilling for Zelensky for months. Its most famous anchor and journalist, Dmitry Gordon, even has a sketch in the new variety show, which features him declaring that, after election day, “Everyone will be Zelensky’s best friend.”

Diplomats have already tried to get inside his head. Many have come away puzzled, says a Western diplomat briefed on Zelensky’s meetings with foreign ambassadors. “He wasn’t in a position to specify what he intends to do when he wins,” the diplomat tells TIME. “On the substance we just don’t know.”

His show offers some clues. In one episode of Servant of the People, the President of Ukraine, as played by Zelensky, tells a group of foreign envoys to “go climb up an ass.” In another, he has a vision of mowing down every lawmaker in parliament with a pair of sub­machine guns while Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” plays in the background. In today’s Ukraine, all of that counts as a twisted sort of populism. “It seems clear that people want the President from the TV show,” says the Western diplomat. “We don’t know if Zelensky will be that President.”

The incumbent Poroshenko, left on this billboard, and rival Tymoshenko lag behind Zelensky in the polls.
Valentyn Ogirenko—Reuters

But Ukraine’s allies — and its voters ­— may prefer a blank slate to the incumbent’s record. Poroshenko has been hounded by corruption allegations for months. One of his top prosecutors was recorded telling the targets of corruption investigations how best to avoid them. Another one of the President’s allies has been accused of smuggling weapons in from Russia and selling them at a mark-up to the military in Ukraine.

These scandals have infuriated Ukraine’s allies in the West. But the prospect of a Tymoshenko presidency also makes them nervous. During a visit to Washington in December, she stunned her hosts by suggesting that China should help mediate the conflict in Ukraine. Her team has also suggested that Ukraine should threaten to build nuclear weapons in part to get attention on the global stage. “Never say never,” her top foreign-policy adviser, Hryhoriy Nemyria, told TIME about the nuclear issue. “This could really help Ukraine’s argument.”

Asked to weigh in on such matters, Zelensky says he will appoint the best experts to resolve them. He has enough on his mind already. Someone had called in a bomb threat during the premiere of his variety show, and police brought dogs to sniff around the concession stands before deciding not to evacuate the theater.

Although the call had been anonymous, Zelensky blamed it on the government. “There’s your answer to the question of what motivates me,” he said. With jokes and metaphors, he went on for a while about the need to save the country from its current leaders. “If I didn’t run, all of this might be gone soon,” he said finally, waving at the costume racks and Hollywood mirrors. “Just like that. Poof. Up in smoke.”

Contact us at editors@time.com.