Stadium debate ahead of Ukraine presidential runoff
Published: 10:41 PM, 19 April 2019
A comedian tipped to take over Ukraine's presidency and his incumbent rival go head-to-head in an extraordinary stadium debate Friday, as campaigning reaches its grand finale before a weekend vote.
Polls show Volodymyr Zelensky, a 41-year-old standup comic with no political experience, handily defeating President Petro Poroshenko in a second-round of voting on Sunday.
The television star's bid started as a long shot but he leapfrogged establishment candidates amid frustration over corruption, economic trouble and a conflict with Moscow-backed insurgents in the country's east.
Some 60,000 spectators are expected to attend the first and only policy head-to-head of the campaign, set to take place in Kiev's Olympic Stadium amid beefed-up security.
Rather than appear on the same stage, the set-up of the stadium on Friday afternoon suggested the men would occupy separate platforms at either end of the venue's soccer pitch.
Police battled major traffic jams as supporters were being bussed in from the regions.
The debate will bring to a close a race that at times descended into farce as the candidates exchanged insults and underwent drug tests at Zelensky's insistence.
On Friday, 53-year-old Poroshenko fired a new salvo against his opponent, questioning his ability to serve as commander-in-chief and calling him a draft dodger.
"The weaker the president of Ukraine, the stronger the president of Russia," Poroshenko told several thousand supporters at a rally ahead of the debate.
Poroshenko says he is the only candidate who can take on Russia's Vladimir Putin and is expected to strike out at the inexperience of the untested Zelensky during the head-to-head.
He may also slam his rival's close ties to controversial oligarch Igor Kolomoysky.
Zelensky will likely attack what he says are his rival's half-hearted attempts at rooting out corruption and cementing the rule of law five years after a popular uprising ousted a Kremlin-backed regime.
- 'Not a coward' -
Zelensky, whose previous political experience has been limited to playing a president on TV, said he was ready to face off with the Ukrainian leader.
"I am not a coward," he said in a rare television appearance late Thursday during which he also unveiled his team.
A survey by the Rating pollster released Thursday showed Zelensky winning 73 percent of the vote against 27 percent for Poroshenko.
Supporters credit Poroshenko -- who took power after a popular uprising in 2014 -- with implementing economic reforms, rebuilding the army, securing an Orthodox Church independent of Russia and winning visa-free travel to Europe.
However, he won just over half of Zelensky's vote share in the first round of the election last month.
The stakes are high for the country of 45 million people seen as a buffer between the European Union and Russia.
Ukraine is mired in a smouldering war with Moscow-backed separatists in the industrial east, a conflict that has claimed 13,000 lives.
A parliamentary election is also due to be held in October.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said his team would record the debate so that Putin could watch when he is free.
"We will watch it for sure," he said.
In a new attempt to squeeze Kiev, Moscow announced Thursday it would be limiting Russian exports of coal, oil and petrochemicals that Ukraine relies on.
- Main risks -
The West is closely watching the race amid concern that a new government might undo years of reforms.
The main risks associated with a Zelensky presidency are "policy incoherence stemming from inexperience" and "undue influence from oligarchs or Russians," a former Western diplomat told AFP.
In a startling development on Thursday, a Kiev court ruled that the Poroshenko government's 2016 decision to nationalise the country's biggest lender as part of a reform drive was illegal.
PrivatBank was owned at the time by Kolomoysky who controls the channel that broadcasts several of Zelensky's shows.
Poroshenko warned that Ukraine risked defaulting on its debt if the bank were handed back to the tycoon after his government spent nearly $6 billion on recapitalising the lender.
The EU, the United States and the IMF said in coordinated statements they were closely monitoring the situation.
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