Kiev, Ukraine—When is a presidential campaign not a presidential campaign? When it’s being fronted by Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian comedian who has a serious chance of becoming the country’s leader going into a weekend vote.
As other candidates in the unpredictable race made last-ditch appeals to the electorate on Friday, Zelensky — who is comfortably ahead in polls for Sunday’s first-round of voting — was performing with his sketch troupe at an arena in the Kiev suburbs.
“We’re not doing any campaigning today,” he said to laughter and applause from the audience of more than two thousand people.
Some were there as supporters of Zelensky’s candidacy, but many had simply come because they were fans of his television work and stand-up.
As often in the extraordinary election, the line between popular performer and presidential hopeful was blurred.
The show began with a large-screen advertisement for a new series of “Servant of the People”—a television comedy in which the 41-year-old actor plays the president.
Until this year it was the closest he had come to politics.
The programme traces the journey of an everyman teacher who ends up winning the presidency after a video rant against Ukraine’s endemic corruption goes viral.
Friday’s arena spectacle — made up of sketches, stand-up and upbeat musical numbers — saw the candidate joined on stage by members of his Kvartal 95 comedy group.
Despite Zelensky’s tongue-in-cheek insistence the two-hour performance would be free of politics, he used the platform to take shots at his rivals.
Incumbent Petro Poroshenko, who is neck-and-neck in polls with ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko to face Zelensky in a run-off vote next month, was a particular target.
“Why is Poroshenko going for a second term? So that he doesn’t get a first,” Zelensky said, with the implication of a jail term for a leader who has been accused of corruption.
“That’s not funny,” his on-stage partner replied, despite a smattering of laughter from the crowd.
“Well, it wasn’t a joke,” Zelensky shot back.
Dressed in a black suit and white shirt, the diminutive comedian closed the show with a song about his love for his motherland as images of Ukraine landmarks played on a screen behind him.
“Everything will be fine for Ukraine in the end,” he said, encouraging the audience to use the torches on their phones to make a sea of light.
“And if it’s not fine, it’s not the end.”
Zelensky has come under fire from the start for the vagueness of his manifesto, the key pledges of which were chosen following a public vote on social media.
Critics say he has no serious suggestions for how to tackle graft or bring an end to a conflict with Russia-backed separatists in the east of Ukraine that has so far cost some 13,000 lives.
Some accuse Zelensky of acting as a front for the interests of oligarch Igor Kolomoysky, who owns the channel that broadcasts his shows, though the entertainer denies any political links.
Supporters say only a fresh face can clear up Ukraine’s murky politics.
He has steadily risen in the polls and now sits around 10 points clear of his nearest rivals, according to several surveys.
“I think he’s funny,” said Nadezhda, a Kiev office worker who was at the arena show with her husband and young daughter.
“I like him as a performer and a producer, not as a politician.”
The 42-year-old said she would vote in Sunday’s election but for a different candidate.
Asked how she imagined a Zelensky presidency, she laughed: “Not great. At least at the start.”
But Yulia, a 49-year-old medical professional who had come to the show with a friend, was more optimistic.
“It’s not just him. He has a team on stage and if he’s elected, he will have a team there as well.”