Shock polls: Comedian Zelenskiy leads presidential race

1 February 2019

Two credible polls conducted last month and released on Jan. 31 confirmed that sketch comedian and movie actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy is now the favorite to win Ukraine’s presidential elections. Among decided voters, Zelenskiy has 23.0% support, compared to 16.4% for President Petro Poroshenko and 15.7% for Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, according to a poll conducted among 11,000 respondents between January 16 and 29 by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, the Razumkov Center and the Socis Center for Social and Market Research.


Zelenskiy’s lead was confirmed by a second poll released the same day. Among decided voters, Zelenskiy has 19.0% support, compared to 18.2% for Tymoshenko and 15.1% for Poroshenko, according to the Rating Sociological Group, which conducted its survey among 6,000 respondents between January 16 and 24. About 14.4% remain undecided, compared to 20.9% in Rating’s December poll. Both polls indicated that more voters now believe Zelenskiy has a legitimate chance to become president, or at least 10% (compared to about 20% for Tymoshenko).


Zenon Zawada: The candidacy of comedian Zelenskiy is no longer a joke. His January surge in the polls comes as a shock to Ukraine’s establishment, turning the entire election landscape upside down. We were expecting his ratings to fallonce he was forced to campaign and discuss political issues (exposing his unfamiliarity), but the very opposite has happened. He has said very little and has only gained support. Even now, he has yet to propose any coherent political platform, aside from a few feel-good phrases (“protecting human life as the main goal”).


The January polls indicate that he is getting the major portion of undecided voters, who see nothing positive in the establishment candidates. It appears that many Ukrainians were waiting for Zelenskiy to officially declare his candidacy – which he did on national television on New Year’s Eve – before voicing their support. It also appears that Ukrainians are so dissatisfied with their elites that they’re willing to trust an actor with no political experience, who merely plays the role of a noble, responsible president. It would be valuable if the polls asked respondents whether they understand that Vasyl Holoborodko (played by Zelenskiy) is a fictional character. The third part of his television series is scheduled to be launched in March, ahead of the vote scheduled for March 31.


Zelenskiy’s candidacy creates enormous destabilization risks for the country. We had the view that Poroshenko would have been able to “massage” the election result to win given that Tymoshenko was his only main rival. He won’t be able to do that so easily with two competitors who have enough support between them to challenge vote manipulations and organize mass protests. The Kremlin will also be looking for opportunities to take advantage of elections-related chaos. These tensions are further heightened by Poroshenko being anathema to either Tymoshenko (his long-time enemy) or Zelenskiy (backed by rival oligarch Igor Kolomoisky) becoming president.


These polls also indicate that the president’s campaign to create the canonical Orthodox Church of Ukraine has failed to impress voters. Meanwhile, Tymoshenko hasn’t convinced the public that she’ll be any different than the standard Ukrainian corrupt politicians. We said confidently that the second-round runoff would be between Poroshenko and Tymoshenko, but after these polls, it’s impossible to predict the second-round candidates with any certainty anymore. This is now a close race between three competitive candidates.

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