SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Ukrainians often say they fight two wars simultaneously, one against an external enemy, which is Russia, another against the internal enemy of rampant corruption and the old way of doing business. On Sunday, Ukrainians will get a chance to fix that when they vote in a presidential election. And as NPR's Lucian Kim finds, it's anybody's guess who will win.
LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Ukraine's president, Petro Poroshenko, has a problem. After five years in office, his popularity is in the cellar. That's because a low-level war against Russian-backed fighters continues in eastern Ukraine, while his promises of eradicating corruption and poverty remain largely unfulfilled. Although it's unlikely any of the 39 presidential candidates will win more than 50 percent in Sunday's election, it's not at all certain that Poroshenko will even make it to a runoff between the top two vote-getters. The president's campaign manager, Igor Gryniv, puts on a brave face.
IGOR GRYNIV: (Foreign language spoken).
KIM: Gryniv says internal polling shows the incumbent will comfortably get to the second round. He says a corruption scandal rocking Poroshenko's inner circle is a distraction intended to divert attention from the president's progress in cleaning up the government. One of Poroshenko's main challengers is a familiar face in Ukrainian politics, Yulia Tymoshenko, a fiery politician who has now given up her trademark braid for trendy glasses. Just a few steps from the president's office in central Kiev stands Alexander Dudnik.
ALEXANDER DUDNIK: (Foreign language spoken).
KIM: The retired driver is handing out campaign material for Tymoshenko. She appeals to low-income and elderly voters like Dudnik with promises of lower utility prices, higher wages and peace with Russia.
DUDNIK: (Foreign language spoken).
KIM: Dudnik says he believes Tymoshenko can bring back a better times. But even though she's a household name, Yulia Tymoshenko, like President Poroshenko, is struggling to stay in the race. That's because a front-runner has appeared out of the blue, a popular comedian named Volodymyr Zelensky. Zelensky is a celebrity thanks in part to his hit TV series in which he plays a man who accidentally becomes president of Ukraine. Even though Zelensky has no political experience, commentator Ivan Yakovina says the comedian is capitalizing on widespread disappointment with establishment politicians.
IVAN YAKOVINA: Each individual Ukrainian has his own idea of who is Zelensky. So that's why everybody's imagining the ideal presidential candidate.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KIM: On the picturesque main square of Lviv in western Ukraine, you can hear competing street musicians and the whole spectrum of political opinion.
IRINA MELNYK: (Foreign language spoken).
KIM: Irina Melnyk, a visitor from central Ukraine, says career politicians haven't done anything good for the country. So why not give a comedian a chance? But first-time voter Yulia Zvarych says there is no alternative to Poroshenko.
YULIA ZVARYCH: I support the present president because he is the best one of the range of candidates.
KIM: Poroshenko's team is betting on a late rally as undecided voters choose him as the only candidate who can stand up to Russia. Political analyst Yakovina says there's a risk there will be accusations of irregularities if Poroshenko ends up pulling through.
YAKOVINA: If the elections will be rigged, the whole situation might up - end up in violence. I'm very afraid of that.
KIM: The first exit polls are expected on Sunday night. The runoff will be held three weeks later. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Kiev.
(SOUNDBITE OF KHALID SONG, "SATURDAY NIGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.