Ukraine’s presidential race takes bizarre turn as candidates take televised drug tests

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Ukraine’s two remaining presidential candidates both underwent televised drug and alcohol tests on Friday, after a week of posturing by the two that has seen the country’s election take an unusual turn.

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Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a comedian who swept ahead of incumbent president Petro Poroshenko in the election’s first round, had made the tests one of his conditions for facing Poroshenko in a pre-election debate. Zelenskiy, who has no political experience and stars in a hit sit-com as a man who unexpectedly becomes president, won Sunday’s first round vote by 30% -- nearly double the amount received by Poroshenko.

With three weeks to go now before a run-off on April 21, Zelenskiy this week released a viral video laying out his conditions for a debate with Poroshenko. Besides the drug tests those included that it be held in Kiev’s 70,000 seat Olympic stadium. He gave Poroshenko 24 hours to respond.

Poroshenko in a reply posted his own video, in which he agreed to the debate and mocked Zelenskiy’s demand that it be in a stadium with a macho shrug: “If you want there to be a stadium, let there be a stadium.”

Poroshenko also agreed to the narcotics tests and on Friday the two visited separate clinics for the tests, which Zelenskiy had said were necessary to show neither was a “drug addict or alcoholic”.

Poroshenko, 53, arrived with a crowd of journalists in tow at a clinic at the Olympic stadium, where Zelenskiy has demanded the debate be held. There, Ukrainian television channels showed the president rolling up his sleeves to allow a medic to take blood. He then gave a urine and hair samples.

Afterwards, Poroshenko said that he believed such tests should be compulsory for presidential candidates, saying it was a matter of “national security”. He also took a jab at Zelenskiy for declining to take the test at the stadium with him.

“I’m at the stadium today,” Poroshenko told reporters. “I came, but you didn’t. No matter, I am sure that he will pick up the courage and come here and the debate will happen.”

Zelenskiy meanwhile went to a private lab. His testing live-streamed on his campaign's Facebook page, which showed him arriving at the lab with a similar mob of journalists and sitting in a chair while a doctor took blood.

“I took a blood test. They pumped all sorts of blood out of me. But thank God, I have enough of it. Young blood,” Zelenskiy, 41, told reporters afterwards.

Poroshenko’s results were announced rapidly by Volodymyr Yary, the chief doctor at a Kiev state hospital, who said that “no psychotropic substance” had been found.

The release of Zelenskiy's results though became a gaffe. He initially posted a photograph on his Facebook page of a results sheet from the lab that showed no traces of various narcotics. But he removed that post after it was spotted that the document was dated to show the samples had been taken 3 days earlier.

Zelenskiy then shared a Facebook post from the laboratory, Eurolab, apologizing to him and explaining the discrepancy was a mistake by a lab worker who had accidentally written the wrong date. He then re-posted a new results sheet with the updated date.

There has been some speculation that Zelenskiy had set the unusual conditions not expecting Poroshenko-- who challenged him first-- would accept them. On Thursday, Zelenskiy threw in another strange curve-ball in a second viral video, proposing that the debate be moderated by Yulia Tymoshenko, a controversial former prime minister who placed third in the election’s first round.

Poroshenko on Thursday night responded by posting another video, telling Zelenskiy to stop setting conditions and to "be a man. Come to the debate."

This week’s odd face-off via social media videos seemed to portend more of what’s to come in an election where television had already blended with reality. In his campaign, Zelenskiy has deliberately blurred the distinction between himself and his TV character in his series Servant of the People, a schoolteacher who is catapulted into the presidency after a rant he makes against corrupt officials goes viral.

Poroshenko faces an uphill struggle to beat Zelenskiy, whose outsider candidacy has played well among Ukrainians fed up with the country’s politics that are seen as deeply corrupt. A recent Gallup poll showed only 9% of Ukrainians have confidence in their government, the lowest in the world, while 91% believe corruption is widespread in government.

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