KRYVYI RIH, Ukraine (AP) — Residents of this grim industrial city in eastern Ukraine say they are exhausted by a daily battle for survival amid low wages and soaring bills. Many of them believe a native son — a comedian with no political experience — is just the person to lift them out of their economic misery.
They will make their choice on Sunday, when Ukraine votes in a decisive runoff election on whether to keep unpopular President Petro Poroshenko, or go with Volodymyr Zelenskiy, an actor who stars in a TV series about a teacher who is accidentally thrust into the nation's top office.
Opinion polls show that the life-imitates-art scenario could actually happen.
Zelenskiy, who easily topped the field in the election's first round on March 31, is polling far ahead of Poroshenko. Ukrainians seem to be willing to give the newcomer a shot amid deep disappointment with the incumbent after five years in power marked by low living standards, allegations of corruption and spiraling armed conflict with rebels backed by neighboring Russia.
Poroshenko has sought to move Ukraine closer to Europe amid a bitter tug-of-war with Moscow, but the move has backfired, with millions of skilled workers leaving for better lives abroad, thanks in part to a visa-free agreement he brokered with the European Union.
"It's just getting worse by year," said Ihor Lyakh, who works at the local steel mill, which is owned by ArcelorMittal, the world's leading steel and mining company. The 45-year-old engineer said his monthly salary is equivalent to $330, barely enough to cover the cost of food and utility bills for his family. His wife has left to work in Poland, and he said he plans to follow her there.
Lyakh said he supported Poroshenko in balloting five years ago, but soon grew disillusioned.
"We already voted for the politicians who offered nice-looking programs but later became mired deep in corruption," he said, echoing broad criticism of Poroshenko, who is accused of turning a blind eye to rampant graft.
Poroshenko, a billionaire who was once known as "the Chocolate King" because his fortune was rooted in the candy business, was elected in 2014 after allying with the protest movement that ousted Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych.
Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine that year and the two countries became openly hostile as pro-Moscow separatists fought Ukrainian troops in the eastern part of the country. The conflict has killed more than 13,000 people since then.
Poroshenko casts himself as a strong statesman capable of standing up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, promising to continue his push for joining NATO and bringing the country of 42 million closer to the EU, even though the prospect looks increasingly distant amid the continuing war in the east and the economic woes.
Serhiy Sharkevich, a 55-year-old steelworker, argued that the president deserves credit for shoring up the country at the time of trouble.
"Poroshenko may not have succeeded in all of his efforts, but he has taken the right course," Sharkevich said. "He's doing his best. He's trying to strengthen the army."
But many others in Kryvyi Rih, located about 300 kilometers (about 190 miles) west from the front line of the separatist conflict, dismiss Poroshenko's focus on bolstering the military and creating a Ukrainian Orthodox Church independent from the Russian Orthodox Church as publicity stunts at odds with the nation's real needs.
"It's all artificial. People don't care about it," Andrei Kostyuchenko said of Poroshenko's platform. "It's necessary to fix the economy and feed the people."
"We can't live like that anymore. We need changes," said Ihor Levonchik, 50. "They told us that we would become part of Europe, but our living standards have remained Ukrainian while prices have indeed matched their level in Europe."
Levonchik, who said he went to Lithuania to work in construction, while his 30-year-old daughter traveled to the Czech Republic to practice as a pediatrician, is supporting Zelenskiy and has known him since childhood.
Volodymyr Tignian, who taught physics to Zelenskiy in high school, praised his courage and sharp wit.
"He feared nothing since childhood," he said. "And he has continued to mock corruption and other vices. People like that."
Just like Poroshenko, Zelenskiy pledges to keep Ukraine on course for integration into Europe, and he speaks firmly about the need to restore the country's territorial integrity. He strongly emphasizes ending the war in the east and cracking down on endemic corruption.
A recently publicized military embezzlement scheme allegedly involving top Poroshenko associates and a factory controlled by the president has badly dented his popularity ratings. Poroshenko has denied any links to the scheme.
Along the potholed roads of Kryvyi Rih, Zelenskiy's bright green billboards hint at the corruption scandals. They say: "April 21. The End of the Era of Greed."
Other pro-Zelenskiy billboards mimic the style of his opponent's campaign posters and have "The End" written next to the back of the head of a man who resembles Poroshenko.
Poroshenko has tried to belittle his opponent as a showman with no political experience who would be easy prey for Putin and a "puppet" of self-exiled billionaire businessman Ihor Kolomoyskyi, whose TV station aired the series that made Zelenskiy famous. The actor acknowledged that his production company had business ties with Kolomoyskyi, but he dismissed accusations that he was being manipulated by the tycoon.
Zelenskiy won 30% of the vote in the first round of the election, while Poroshenko got 16%. The gap between them was much wider in Kryvyi Rih, where Zelenskiy won 52% and the incumbent only had 6%.
The distance has widened as the runoff approached.
A poll released Thursday by the Rating agency suggested Zelenskiy has 58% support, while Poroshenko has just 22%. The poll of 3,000 people had a margin of error of 1.8 percentage points.
In Kryvyi Rih, political arguments have been erupting often as the election nears.
Passengers of a bus driving past smelters, mines and dilapidated suburbs engaged in a fierce debate after one commuter praised Poroshenko for "feeding" the army.
But Mykola Andreichik, an industrial worker, snapped back: "Above all, the president has fed himself and his entourage."
"After paying utility bills, my wage is only good to buy two boxes of Poroshenko's candy," the 57-year-old said, referring to the president's confectionery factory.
At a dilapidated apartment building where Zelenskiy's parents still live, residents also bemoaned plummeting living standards.
"We used to be part of the middle class, but now we have come down," said Olha Zyusko, 60. "We worked all our life only to become beggars."
Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed.