In a fittingly showbiz finale to the country’s surprising election, Ukraine’s two presidential candidates, incumbent president Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the comedian who currently leads him the polls, faced each other on Friday in a debate held in a stadium filled with thousands of cheering supporters.
The election’s second round run-off is due to take place on Sunday, with polls showing Poroshenko far behind Zelenskiy, who has no previous political experience and appears on television as a schoolteacher who inadvertently becomes president. Zelenskiy trounced Poroshenko in the first round on April 1 and polls currently show him with an overwhelming lead.
Friday’s debate, held in Kiev’s 70,000-seat Olympic Stadium, more closely resembled a rock concert or sports match than a traditional pre-election debate. Two stages were erected at either ends of the field, with the candidates divided into opposing sections. Moderators tossed a coin to choose which end the debate would occur at, with it landing for Zelenskiy.
Poroshenko entered the stadium with his entourage like a boxer, swaggering along the stadium’s running track.
The debate itself often resembled a boxing match, with both candidates making accusations of corruption and cronyism. Ultimately, it took the form of a question and answer session, as the two shouted over the noise of the crowd for an hour.
Zelenskiy, who is a popular performer in both Ukraine and Russia, has effectively run as his TV character—an every-man promising to clean up Ukraine’s politics and to jail corrupt officials. Poroshenko, a billionaire who was elected off the back of the 2014 revolution that toppled Ukraine’s Russian-backed president, has painted himself as a strong war-time leader capable of standing up to Russia.
He has struggled though to counter Zelenskiy’s anti-establishment candidacy and at the debate, the two fell into the familiar roles.
"I am not a politician," Zelenskiy told the crowd. "I am simply a person. A person who has come to break the system."
He accused Poroshenko of allowing his allies to enrich themselves and protecting his own interests, while failing to end the war with Russia that has cost 13,000 lives since 2014.
Poroshenko, speaking in the thumping tones common to former Soviet politicians, attacked Zelenskiy’s inexperience and painted him as soft on Russia. He focused heavily on Zelenskiy’s time working in Russia and on jokes he had made at Ukraine’s expense. "Don’t mock our country," Poroshenko told him, referring to him as a "candy wrapper,": shiny on the outside but without substance.
Poroshenko also repeatedly drew attention to Zelenskiy’s ties to oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who owns the channel 1+1 which broadcasts Zelenskiy’s shows and who has backed his campaign.
"You are a vehicle for oligarchs," Poroshenko said.
Zelenskiy fired back by pointing out Poroshenko is himself an oligarch, often nicknamed the 'Chocolate King' because his fortune is based on a confectionery brand.
"I believe a president should not be an oligarch. A president should be a person." Zelenskiy said. As he has previously, he warned Poroshenko that he might one day face criminal charges.
"I am not your opponent, I am your sentence," Zelenskiy told him.
The debate itself has been a central feature of the campaign, with Ukrainians watching as the two effectively debated how to hold it for the past three weeks. It began with Zelenskiy releasing a viral video in which he set conditions to debate Poroshenko, among them that the two take televised drugs tests.
The two took the tests, but afterwards struggled to agree a date. As a result, last Sunday, Poroshenko found himself debating on a stage alone versus an empty podium after Zelenskiy refused to attend.
In the end, the debate looked unlikely to have much of an effect. Final polls have shown Zelenskiy with an intimidating lead over Poroshenko. A poll this week by research body Reiting showed Zelenskiy at 57.9% of votes, with Poroshenko at 21.7%