In seven days, Ukrainians are to decide at the ballot box whether they want to grant Poroshenko a second term – or replace him with comedian-turned-politician Volodymir Zelensky. A fresh opinion poll published this week gives little hope for the current head of state to keep his job. The study conducted by the Rating agency, said 61 percent of Ukrainians, who intend to show up to the polling stations next Sunday, will vote for Zelensky and only 24 percent for his opponent.
In an apparent last-ditch attempt to turn the tide in his favor, Poroshenko spent this week in (mostly futile) attempts to lure Zelensky into a direct debate. A more experienced speaker, the president would presumably look better in an open verbal battle, especially if supported by a friendly audience.
The two participants of the electoral run-off are obliged by the law to hold at least one round of debate televised by Ukraine’s public broadcaster. Since last week Poroshenko has been pushing for the earliest date possible, but Zelensky’s campaign pulled the rug from under the incumbent with a public challenge for a duel at the Olimpiysky stadium – to which Poroshenko agreed.
What the two teams failed to settle was when to do the show. Poroshenko insisted on this Sunday – April 14 at 14:14 to be precise – and indeed gathered a rally of supporters just outside the stadium. Notably, the venue itself was busy hosting another event at the time, according to its management.
With Zelensky expectedly missing at the second podium, the Ukrainian president spent about an hour “waiting” for him on stage and biding his time by repeating campaign points.
About two hours later the crowd led by Poroshenko went inside the now-vacated Olimpiysky stadium. Aerial footage of the incursion showed supporters of the president managing to fill a small portion of the 70,000 seats at the venue.
The non-debate on Sunday was the second attempt by Poroshenko to clinch with Zelensky in public this week. On Friday, he unexpectedly showed up at a political talk show on 1+1, a TV channel owned by businessman Igor Kolomoysky, who is presumed by many observers to be the primary sponsor of Zelensky’s campaign.
Poroshenko said he came to challenge Zelensky for a duel and used the air time for some additional campaigning. The frontrunner eventually called the studio from France, where he went to meet President Emmanuel Macron. The two candidates locked in an emotional, but rather brief exchange, in which Zelensky rejected Poroshenko’s preferred date and said he will meet him at the stadium on Friday next week. Whether Poroshenko intends to come on April 19 remains to be seen.
As the final polling date draws closer, the Ukrainian presidential campaign looks increasingly dirty. Poroshenko himself made a few eyebrow-raising remarks on Monday, alluding to claims that Zelensky is a drug addict. He stressed he had no proof that Zelensky was one, before elaborating in great detail how dangerous it would be if a drug addict were to become the president of Ukraine.
Simultaneously, Ukrainian social media were flooded with images depicting Zelensky as a cocaine-sniffing nobody unworthy of the presidential office. There was even a video showing the candidate marching forward before being run over by a truck. “Each one has his line,” the clip says as a line of white powder is shown being snorted out through a dollar bill. Many supporters of Zelensky believe those images to be part of a smear campaign backed by Poroshenko.