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25 February, 2019

Comedian Volodymyr Zelensky leads polls in Ukraine's presidential race

The political novice's popularity with voters has left pundits scratching their heads — and some critics fearing he's biting off more than he can chew

Pacing back and forth, Volodymyr Zelensky rehearses his lines as a director instructs him on how to smile and shake someone’s hand.

Zelensky, 41, is running to become Ukraine's next president. But he is not shooting a campaign video.

In what he hopes will be a case of art imitating life, Zelensky stars in a popular TV series, "Servant of the People," in which he plays a history teacher who is elected president after his rant about government corruption goes viral.

Zelensky has become one of the most recognized faces in Ukraine's entertainment industry in his more than two decades as a comedian, actor and producer. And while he plays a president on TV, he has no actual political experience.

But with five weeks to go until voters head to the ballot box on March 31, a recent poll suggests Zelensky is the front-runner, with more support than the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko, or another candidate, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Educated as a lawyer, Zelensky is also a savvy businessman who many Ukrainians see as a self-made man, one whose wealth is the result of hard work.

But the political novice's popularity with voters has left pundits scratching their heads.

He doesn't hold rallies, instead traveling around the country selling tickets to gigs at which he parodies many of the politicians he is running against. Zelensky also regularly communicates with supporters through behind-the-scenes campaign videos he posts on Facebook and YouTube — a fresh approach in Ukraine.

But some critics fear Zelensky might be biting off more than he can chew.

Ukraine's next leader will have to deal with the increasingly belligerent actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

If elected, Zelensky will inherit a country torn by the ongoing military conflict with Kremlin-backed separatists in the east, a crumbling economy, rampant corruption and tensions with neighboring Russia — which annexed Crimea in 2014.

NBC News

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