A comedian, Volodymyr Zelensky whose political experience is limited to playing the president on TV is likely to top the first round of voting as Ukrainians go to the polls Sunday.
Actor Zelensky’s bid started as a long shot but he has leapfrogged establishment politicians amid public frustration over corruption and stagnating living standards.
The 41-year-old star of the political comedy “Servant of the People,” which returned for its third season this week, is polling above 25 percent, well ahead of his nearest rivals.
If Zelensky wins the presidency he will lead a country of 45 million people that in recent years has known war, loss of territory and uprisings, and remains one of the poorest nations in Europe.
The main question now is whether incumbent Petro Poroshenko or ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko will meet Zelensky in a run-off next month.
One recent survey put them neck and neck at around 17 percent, though another showed Poroshenko pulling ahead of ally-turned-foe Tymoshenko to make the second round.
Zelensky, who has a young support base, acknowledges that he has “no experience” but nonetheless insists he has the strength to lead Ukraine.
“I don’t have all the knowledge but I’m learning this now,” he told AFP in an interview this month. I don’t want to look like an idiot.”
Even in the final days of campaigning he has eschewed rallies and interviews in favour of playing gigs with his comedy troupe.
Critics point to the vagueness of his manifesto, the key pledges of which were chosen following a public vote on social media.
But supporters say only a brand new face can clean up Ukraine’s murky politics.
Some accuse Zelensky of acting as a front for the interests of oligarch Igor Kolomoysky, who owns the channel that broadcasts the entertainer’s shows, but he denies any political links.
Polls opened at 8:00 am (0500 GMT) with exit poll results expected around 8:00 pm, and first preliminary results several hours later.
Poroshenko was elected president in 2014 after a revolution forced Kremlin-backed predecessor Viktor Yanukovych from office.
The pro-Western uprising was followed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and a conflict in eastern Ukraine between Kiev’s forces and Moscow-backed separatists.
Poroshenko came in on promises to tackle graft, align Ukraine with the West and shut down the fighting in the east.
But five years on, corruption is widespread and the simmering separatist conflict has cost 13,000 lives.