Ukraine's bruising presidential campaign ends with rowdy arena debate

Comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy is tipped to oust Petro Poroshenko

Ukraine’s president and presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko attends a policy debate with his rival, comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, at the Olimpiyskiy sports stadium in Kiev, on Friday. Photograph: Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

Ukraine’s president and presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko attends a policy debate with his rival, comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, at the Olimpiyskiy sports stadium in Kiev, on Friday. Photograph: Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

 

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko swung hard for challenger Volodymyr Zelenskiy during a highly charged debate before more than 20,000 noisy spectators, but probably failed to land enough blows to win their election run-off on Sunday.

At Kiev’s Olimpiyskiy Stadium on Friday evening they traded jabs for an hour over the incumbent’s alleged failure to fight graft and the popular comedian’s political inexperience.

Poroshenko kept the challenger waiting for a few minutes as he strode through the stadium, punching the air and waving to supporters, but then failed to seriously unsettle an accomplished performer who has a strong leads in the polls.

Zelenskiy swiftly went on the attack with a barrage of questions on the president’s record since 2014, when he took power after Ukraine’s Maidan revolution and Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and start of a proxy war in the eastern Donbas region.

Corruption

After asking why Poroshenko had failed to end high-level corruption, improve living standards and ensure officers responsible for military failures in Donbas were punished, he said: “I’m not your opponent – I’m your sentence.

“I voted for Poroshenko in 2014. But I made a mistake. Could I have imagined that ‘living in a new way’ would mean ‘trying to survive’?” Mr Zelenskiy (41) said.

“That’s why I’m here with my team. I’m not a politician, I’m just an ordinary person who came to break this system... I am the result of your mistakes and your promises.”

To cheers and boos from their respective supporters, the pair reiterated their key campaign messages, with Poroshenko warning that the comedian would be manipulated by the Kremlin and his business associate, oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, and Zelenskiy pledging to clean up Ukraine’s murky politics.

“You have stressed that you are ready to learn as president... Would you board a plane whose pilot got behind the controls to learn? Would you go under the knife of a surgeon who came to the operating room to learn?” Poroshenko asked.

Unpleasant surprises

Having dubbed Zelenskiy “a cat in a sack” – Ukrainian for a pig in a poke – the president said on stage: “You’re not a cat in a sack – you’re the sack, and in the sack there are devils and cats,” suggesting he would be full of unpleasant surprises.

“Better a cat in a sack than a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Zelenskiy replied.

As the stage filled up with both men’s supporters – including their wives and soldiers on Poroshenko’s side and members of Zelenskiy’s comedy troupe on his – they debated a war that has killed 13,000 people, displaced 1.6 million and left a swath of Ukraine’s industrial heartland in the hands of Russian-led separatists.

Zelenskiy rejected criticism over his 2014 offer to “go down on his knees” before Russian president Vladimir Putin to end the war, and said he was ready to kneel before all Ukrainians who had lost relatives in five years of fighting.

He then asked Poroshenko (53) if he was prepared to do the same, and both candidates kneeled on stage, with the president facing camouflage-clad troops who had come to support him, and the comedian facing spectators.

The crowd in the 70,000-capacity stadium was smaller than expected: officials said 22,000 people were in the arena, and about 10,000 police officers were stationed around the city centre to maintain order.

Bigger margin

Zelenskiy won the first round of the election last month with 30 per cent of votes, ahead of Poroshenko on 16 per cent in a field of 39 candidates. Surveys suggest the challenger will win by a bigger margin on Sunday.

“I’m very scared for my country and strongly support our current president,” Ira Troshkina (24) from Kiev said on her way into the stadium.

“My husband is a soldier and I know what a breakthrough we’ve made in the last five years. Look at how we’ve made progress in the international arena, and how I can now go to the EU without a visa and find opportunities there, and people look well on Ukraine, ” she added.

“I know that the uniform, equipment and pay that a soldier gets are much better now... It hasn’t been 100 per cent good [under Mr Poroshenko] but it’s the best we’ve had in 25 years.”

‘No decent roads’

Alexander (26), who declined to give his surname, saw things differently. “I’ve come here to listen to them live and hopefully hear some truth. Although we’ve heard the ‘truth’ from one of them for five years and that’s enough,” he said.

“I’m in the building trade and drive all over Ukraine. It’s tough – he’s been in power five years and we still have no decent roads. And corruption is everywhere.”

“Poroshenko can’t say anything tonight to change my mind. I lived in Sweden for six months but came home because he said things would be better, and nothing’s changed.”