Sat, 25 May 2019

KYIV -- Debate day has arrived and the stages are set.

Thats right. There will be two stages -- one for each candidate -- at the much anticipated Ukrainian presidential debate, separated by a security barricade and crowds of supporters who will pack into separated fan zones at Kyivs Olimpiyskiy Stadium on the evening of April 19.

The bizarre arrangement is fitting for a nearly four-month-long presidential race to lead the country of some 40 million people that has been anything but orthodox.

With clone candidates, live-streamed drug testing, and a front-runner whose only political experience is playing a fictional president on a TV sitcom, these elections are indeed one for the ages.

And now it is coming to an end.

Opinion polls suggest that in a life-imitating-art scenario comic actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy may very well deliver a devastating defeat to incumbent President Petro Poroshenko and become Ukraines sixth president in an April 21 runoff vote.

Zelenskiy won the elections first round on March 31, winning with 30 percent of the votes compared to Poroshenkos 16 percent. A Rating Group poll issued on April 18 showed Zelenskiy with 52 percent of voters support compared to Poroshenkos 19 percent. Some 19 percent said they were undecided and 10 percent said they would not vote.

A woman campaigning for President Petro Poroshenko in Kyiv on April 14.

The figures show Ukrainians appear willing to give a political novice a shot amid disillusionment with a Poroshenko presidency marred by rampant corruption, a fall in living standards, and a war with Russia-backed forces in its east that has killed more than 13,000 people and displaced nearly 2 million.

Nevertheless, a Poroshenko camp that has used black PR to smear its opponent and try to climb back into the race looks set to fight to the bitter end.

It was the incumbent leader who first challenged Zelenskiy to a debate. Up until now, Zelenskiy has largely avoided Poroshenko, opting to instead speak to Ukrainians through his popular social-media channels.

After much haggling over the time and place, the two will finally meet at 7 p.m. local time (6 p.m. Prague time) at the stadium.

A second debate also has been scheduled at Ukraine's Public TV Studio for 8 p.m. local time (7 p.m. Prague time) in order to comply with the country's election laws -- which say a formal debate must be held at the the studio of the public broadcaster.

In anticipation of the face-off and the upcoming vote, the Poroshenko camp moved to mobilize supporters in Kyiv and beyond on April 19, the last official day for the candidates to campaign before a legally obligated day of silence.

On the app Telegram, Poroshenko urged Ukrainians to maximize mobilization. He also provided links to downloadable flyers bashing his opponent and called for them to be handed out at key locations in Kyiv, such as subway stations.

We have one day left to inflict a last blow against the forces of revenge, Poroshenkos message began, and motivate [Ukrainians] to come on April 21 and vote for Ukraine, not Malorossiya, or little Russia, a Russian imperial term used to describe land that now makes up part of independent Ukraine.

In the context used by Poroshenko, it is a clear suggestion that Zelenskiy is pro-Russian.

Zelenskiy and his camp also were using social media to reach out to supporters, releasing information on how to attend the debate and asking people not to bring their children.

In a rare live appearance ahead of debate day on April 18 on the 1+1 television channel, which airs Zelenskiys comedy shows, the candidate introduced several members of his team to the voting public.

With the confidence of someone who seemed to believe the debate wouldn't change voters minds, Zelenskiy said that as president, I will do everything I can.

I will bring in smart people. If I fail, I will leave,' he said.

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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