KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine's president on Thursday ordered the creation of a special anti-corruption court in an apparent attempt to catch up with his challenger, who has taken a commanding lead in the presidential runoff race.
A poll conducted by the Reiting survey group found comic actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy with 61% support while President Petro Poroshenko had 24% ahead of a runoff set for April 21. The poll released Thursday was based on answers from 3,000 respondents and had a margin of error of 1.8 percentage points.
The 41-year-old comic actor, who plays the role of the nation's president in a hugely popular TV sitcom, has never held political office.
Zelenskiy's popularity, however, reflects public longing for a fresh leader who has no ties to Ukraine's corruption-ridden political elite and can propose a new way to settle the grinding five-year conflict with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine that has left 13,000 people dead since 2014.
He easily beat Poroshenko in the first round on March 31, garnering 30% of the vote, while the incumbent got just under 16%.
Amid an increasingly heated campaign, Zelenskiy's office on Thursday accused Poroshenko's election headquarters of posting a video in which Zelenskiy is run over by a heavy truck. It said it perceives the video as a clear threat that warrants additional security measures.
Poroshenko's campaign denied that it was responsible for putting out the video and Ukrainian police said they launched a criminal investigation into the incident.
Poroshenko, 53, saw his approval ratings plummet amid Ukraine's economic woes and a sharp plunge in living standards amid a conflict with Russia, which annexed Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula in 2014.
He has cast himself as a strong statesman capable of standing up to Russia, claiming that Zelenskiy's lack of political experience will make him an easy prey for the Kremlin. But even though most of the world has rejected Russia's annexation of Crimea, there are no signs that Ukraine under any political leader is getting the territory back.
Poroshenko also has been repeatedly accused of turning a blind eye to corruption. In addition, the exposure of a military embezzlement scheme that allegedly involved top Poroshenko associates as well as a factory controlled by the president has badly dented his popularity. Poroshenko has denied any links to the scheme.
In an apparent bid to deflect criticism, Poroshenko on Thursday signed a decree to appoint members of the High Anti-Corruption Court — a longtime demand of both the United States and the European Union.
"By setting up the Anti-Corruption Court, we are completing the creation of an independent anti-corruption infrastructure," he said.