A comedian tipped to take over Ukraine’s presidency on Friday vowed to dismantle the old political system as he went head-to-head with his incumbent rival in an extraordinary stadium debate before today’s vote.
Polls showed Volodymyr Zelensky, a 41-year-old standup comic with no political experience, handily defeating Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in today’s second round of voting.
The hour-long debate at Kiev’s Olympic Stadium capped a weeks-long sensational campaign in a war-torn country seen as a buffer between the EU and Russia.
“I am not a politician,” said Zelensky, opening the first and only policy debate of the presidential race. “I am just a simple person who has come to break down this system.”
“I am the result of your mistakes and promises,” he told the 53-year-old president as the spectators clapped and jeered.
The TV star’s bid was initially dismissed as a joke, but he leapfrogged establishment candidates amid frustration over corruption, economic trouble and a conflict with Moscow-backed insurgents in the country’s east.
Police said that more than 20,000 spectators attended the debate.
At times Poroshenko seemed more confident, but the consummate showman Zelensky dominated the head-to-head, often putting the Ukrainian leader on the defensive.
Zelensky delivered a strong performance in which he demonstrated his trademark showmanship and a bit of theatrics, flashing victory signs and peppering his speech with catchy slogans.
At one point he went down on one knee in honor of those who died in the war with insurgents, prompting Poroshenko to do the same.
The rivals opened the debate on a positive note by shaking hands, but quickly launched mutual attacks. Behind them stood their wives, teams and backers, including fatigue-clad servicemen who supported Poroshenko.
The Ukrainian leader attacked the inexperience of the untested Zelensky and said that he tried to be many things to many people.
“We only have a beautiful, bright sweet wrapper in which everyone can find what he is looking for,” Poroshenko said.
He slammed Zelensky for avoiding active-duty military service and added that he would not be able to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“An actor without any experience whatsoever cannot lead a war against an aggressor,” he said.
Many observers said the comic won the debate.
“Poroshenko lost,” author and producer Illarion Pavliuk said on Facebook. “Whether you like it or not.”
Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called the political debate a “circus.”
The debate brought to a close a race that has at times descended into farce as the candidates exchanged insults and underwent drug tests.
A survey released on Thursday showed Zelensky winning 73 percent of the vote against 27 percent for Poroshenko.
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 reporters.
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