Ahead of Sunday's presidential runoff election President Petro Poroshenko and comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy held their only debate at a football stadium. Polls show Poroshenko losing to Zelenskiy.
Several thousand people attended the first and only head-to-head debate between the candidates on Friday night in Kyiv's Olympic Stadium amid beefed-up security.
The rivals appeared together on stage and opened the debate on a positive note by shaking hands before quickly launching mutual attacks. Each of the candidates had people with them on stage. Poroshenko very visibly had members of the military on his side while Zelenskiy had a group of civilians in his corner.
"I am not a politician," said Zelenskiy, who spoke first. "I am just a simple person who has come to break down this system," he said. "I am the result of your mistakes and promises."
Poroshenko attacked the inexperience of Zelenskiy, who rose to prominence playing the president on television, and questioned his ability to serve as commander-in-chief.
"We only have a beautiful and bright sweet wrapper in which everyone can find what he is looking for," said an emotional Poroshenko.
Zelenskiy meanwhile said that while he had supported Poroshenko in becoming president in 2014, "I made a mistake." He accused Poroshenko of involvement in corruption. "I'm not your opponent; I'm your verdict. The enrichment of the people turned out to be enrichment of his people," Zelenskiy said. "How did it turn out that Ukraine is the poorest country with the richest president?"
Poroshenko, who is trailing in opinion polls, called a rally of several thousand people in the capital ahead of Friday's debate.
The debate at the stadium was the first time the opponents faced off in the highly competitive presidential campaign.
Speaking to thousands of his followers who had gathered at Maidan Square on Friday afternoon, Poroshenko warned them that a victory for Zelenskiy would damage the country's closer economic and political cooperation with the European Union.
He also declared that Zelenskiy would be a weak president, to the benefit of Russia, which annexed Crimea in 2014 and has been bankrolling separatists in Ukraine's east.
"By no means do we think that our opponent is a Kremlin agent but [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is dreaming of a weak and ill-prepared novice," Poroshenko said in a hoarse voice. "Putin is dreaming of chaos."
Comedian's suitability questioned
The Ukrainian president invoked Zelenskiy's background, and said that a five-year presidential term is "not a comedy show that can be turned off."
Poroshenko also questioned Zelenskiy's ability to serve as commander-in-chief and called him a draft dodger.
Lyudmila Soloveyko, a 56-year-old schoolteacher who went to the rally said on Friday that she was grateful to Poroshenko for "opening the door to Europe for Ukrainians," referring to a Poroshenko-lobbied decision by the EU to scrap visas for Ukrainians, and said that she is afraid that "this door will shut again."
Zelenskiy has eschewed a traditional campaign, touring the country with his comedy show instead. In his rare interviews he has voiced support for close ties with the EU and NATO but also talked about making more active efforts to re-integrate the rebel east back in Ukraine's fold.
A survey by the Rating pollster released Thursday predicted that Zelenskiy would win 73% of the vote against 27% for Poroshenko.
av/msh (AP, AFP, Reuters)