KIEV, Ukraine — Ukrainian voters, who generally hold a dim view of their government, crowded into polling stations on Sunday to vote in a presidential election in which the unlikely front-runner was a young comedian who plays an accidental president on television.
The election will help to determine the future of a country that has become the European front line in a new era of confrontation between Russia and the West, spawning a grinding war that has left 13,000 dead and displaced millions since 2014.
The fact that Ukraine works as a real, albeit troubled, democracy is often cited as perhaps the most important aspect of the election. Unlike Potemkin elections in neighboring Russia and Belarus, voters have a real choice, and the outcome is unknown.
A standout in a field of 39 candidates
In the last polls before Election Day, Volodymyr Zelensky, 41, a comedian with no political experience, was backed by almost 30 percent of voters in an electorate of 30 million. In a crowded field of 39 candidates, most of them politicians, Mr. Zelensky stands out as the star of a popular television series in which a schoolteacher is unexpectedly propelled into the presidency after his anticorruption tirade goes viral.
“He is doing well because there is a widespread mood in Ukraine of alienation from politicians and the political class, which is not unique to Ukraine,” said Robert Brinkley, a former British ambassador to Ukraine who is now chairman of the Ukrainian Institute in London, an educational and cultural center.
Two veteran political rivals, President Petro O. Poroshenko, a former chocolate tycoon, and Yulia V. Tymoshenko, a former prime minister making her third bid for the presidency, were running neck and neck for second place.
If the last survey by the Ukranian polling agency Rating was accurate, about a sixth of voters remained undecided leading up to the election. If no candidate captures more than 50 percent in the first round, then Mr. Zelensky is expected to face a runoff against either Mr. Poroshenko or Ms. Tymoshenko on April 21.
In southern Kiev, Artem Nechyporuk, 26, a computer programmer, emerged from a polling station on what was the first warm day of spring to say that he supported Mr. Zelensky.
“He is the only candidate who is not contaminated with our politics,” he said. “That is why he is the only candidate for me.”
Fresh-face appeal, and ties to an oligarch
The basic mantra of politics in Ukraine is that ever since the country declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, it has been run by a government of oligarchs, for oligarchs.
Despite two antigovernment uprisings, in 2004 and 2014, meant to bring greater democracy and transparency, the country’s fundamental character remains unchanged.
Avenues for the abuse of government contracts and other corruption have been reduced but not eliminated. The stigma of graft dogs the entourage around Mr. Poroshenko, and Ukraine still lacks a strong anticorruption watchdog.
Ukrainians seem more fed up than ever. A mere 9 percent say they have confidence in the government, and 91 percent see it as corrupt, according to a Gallup poll conducted in March.
That gave rise to Mr. Zelensky, who has blurred the lines between his television character and his candidacy. His show, “The Servant of the People,” became the name of his party. And many voters say they feel as if they know him after watching him on television for years, similar to what many Americans say about President Trump.
Despite his fresh-face appeal, however, questions hang over Mr. Zelensky as a possible surrogate for Ihor V. Kolomoisky, an oligarch and bitter rival of Mr. Poroshenko who moved to Israel after becoming embroiled in a banking scandal that cost Ukraine $5.6 billion. Although Mr. Zelensky has been a business partner with the oligarch through television and announced his candidacy on Mr. Kolomoisky’s channel, both men have denied any covert link.
Mr. Zelensky has been vague about how he would address critical issues, instead asking people on social media to help write his platform.
He is particularly popular among the young, who turned out in low numbers previously, and a runoff would focus more attention on whether a comedian could both confront Russia and solve socioeconomic issues.
What are the campaigns focusing on?
The electorate’s main concerns are issues like raising wages and unemployment, as well as the war in eastern Ukraine. No candidate has offered a solid, detailed blueprint to solve those issues or has addressed concerns about the overall state of Ukraine that fueled the 2014 uprising.
Mr. Poroshenko, 53, has wrapped himself in the flag, campaigning under the slogan “Army, Language, Faith.” His campaign emphasized that he had restructured the army to strengthen it in its confrontation with Russia and had successfully pulled the Orthodox Church in Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit.
In his campaign speeches, Mr. Poroshenko has tried to sell himself as the most qualified commander in chief and the most likely to push Ukraine closer to Europe. That clearly swayed some voters.
“I am voting for Poroshenko because he has already demonstrated his ability to do things, not just words,” said Nataliia Pavlik, 72, after she voted in Kiev on Sunday. She also named the ability to travel to Europe visa-free, church autonomy and the army as important considerations.
“He raised it from the ashes. I want him to anchor all of this for the next five years,” she added.
Ms. Tymoshenko, 58, has adopted populist positions like plans to cut gas prices in half and to raise wages without being specific about how to pay for them. Subsidized gas prices were raised at the insistence of the International Monetary Fund, whose support is critical to Ukraine’s recovery.
She also sells herself as being able to bargain with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia because she had dealt with him as prime minister. But she earned her own fortune through gas deals with Russia, a common source of wealth for the Ukrainian elite, earning the nickname “the gas princess.”
Ms. Tymoshenko was also prosecuted and imprisoned by the Russian-aligned former government. Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s onetime campaign manager who has been sentenced to prison in the United States over undeclared income from Ukraine, among other things, had orchestrated a long, expensive, smear campaign against her.
Anatoly S. Hrytsenko, a former defense minister, is fourth in the polls and a possible dark-horse candidate given his military background.
Where does the Kremlin stand?
The Kremlin has depicted the election as a farce and the low poll numbers of the incumbent president as a sign that the 2014 uprising had been a failure.
Mr. Poroshenko was elected president three months after his predecessor, Viktor F. Yanukovych, fled to Russia in the face of the uprising. Mr. Poroshenko has made confronting Russia the centerpiece of his presidency, and Russian state television invariably presents him as a corrupt buffoon working for the West.
But Russia has not made any overt pronouncements about whom it supports, which would doom any candidate.
The infrastructure needed to vote was not set up in Crimea, which Russia annexed, or in the areas of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists, or for expatriate workers in Russia itself, leaving several million voters without polling stations.
A president other than Mr. Poroshenko would give the Kremlin a face-saving way to move past the events of 2014. Over all, the best outcome for Russia would be more uncertainty and instability emerging from the election. Russia still wants to exert influence over its neighbor and limit its ability to integrate with the European Union and NATO.
Toward that end, it is more interested in October elections for Parliament, when it would like to influence the largest bloc possible.
Has meddling or dirty tricks marred the campaign?
In January, Facebook announced it had removed 107 fake accounts, pages and groups, as well as 41 fake accounts on Instagram, that had originated in Russia and targeted users in Ukraine. The accounts, run by individuals who masqueraded as Ukrainians, shared general-interest news.
Western nations have also expressed concern that several hundred members of the National Militia, an ultranationalist paramilitary organization, have been given the right to act as poll monitors among many other organizations. Cindy McCain, the widow of Senator John McCain, who had supported Ukraine, is leading a delegation from the International Republican Institute.
There have also been accusations of vote buying and other abuses that are still to be investigated.
A few tactics typical of Ukraine have also been in play, like the campaign trick known as running a clone. A former construction worker named Yuri V. Tymoshenko, whose initials and surname are the same as Ms. Tymoshenko’s, is running in an apparent bid to sow confusion on the ballot.
Follow Neil MacFarquhar on Instagram: @nytMacfarquhar.
Iuliia Mendel reported from Kiev, and Neil MacFarquhar from Moscow. Ivan Nechepurenko and Sophia Kishkovsky contributed reporting from Moscow.