Ukrainian presidential campaign ends with heated debate in soccer stadium
Presidential candidates Petro Poroshenko (C-L) and Volodymyr Zelensky (C-R) kneel as they participate in debate at the Olimpiyskiy Stadium in Kiev, Ukraine, Apr. 19, 2019. EPA-EFE/STEPAN FRANKO
Ukrainian Presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko reacts during a debate with Volodymyr Zelensky at the Olimpiyskiy Stadium in Kiev, Ukraine, Apr. 19, 2019. EPA-EFE/SERGEY DOLZHENKO
Ukrainian Presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during debate with Petro Poroshenko at the Olimpiyskiy Stadium in Kiev, Ukraine, Apr. 19, 2019. EPA-EFE/SERGEY DOLZHENKO
Ukrainians react during a debate between Presidential candidates Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelensky at the Olimpiyskiy Stadium in Kiev, Ukraine, Apr. 19, 2019. EPA-EFE/SERGEY DOLZHENKO
Bartenders pour drinks, as people watch debates of the Ukrainian Presidential candidates Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelensky on a TV screen in a bar in Kiev, Ukraine, Apr. 19, 2019. EPA-EFE/OLEG PETRASYUK
Kiev, Apr 19 (efe-epa).- The president of Ukraine and his main rival in the upcoming national elections, a comedian who has been leading the pre-poll surveys, on Friday wrapped up their campaigns with a heated debate at an unusual venue, a soccer stadium in Kiev.
The ground was divided into two sections for the debate, with a heavy police cordon in the middle to prevent possible clashes.
More than 10,000 police officers were deployed in the stadium, while security was boosted across the capital that caused huge traffic congestions.
Over 20,000 people attended the debate, during which President Petro Poroshenko's supporters kept booing his opponent, Volodymyr Zelensky, every time he spoke.
Zelensky opened the debate by saying he had voted for Poroshenko, led by his promise of a better life, but that actually people were now struggling to survive.
The debate ultimately descended into a dogfight, with both leaders exchanging low blows, leaving an impression that Poroshenko came out the winner, both due to his larger experience as an orator and the fact that a majority of the spectators were his followers.
However, it is uncertain if the debate victory would be sufficient to overturn Poroshenko's deficit against Zelensky in the polls, where the comedian enjoyed the support of two-thirds of the population.
Zelensky reiterated on Friday that he was not a career politician, but a "simple citizen" who had decided to disrupt the system.
He announced that he would hold the presidency for just one term in case he wins Sunday's elections.
The comedian accused Poroshenko of not fulfilling the promises he had made after the 2014 Ukrainian revolution and for helping his allies to get rich at the cost of impoverished Ukrainians, and asked him to explain how he became an oligarch overnight.
Although Zelensky unequivocally supported the pro-Europe turn characterized by the revolution, he did not announce a deadline like the president, who promised to demand entry into the European Union by 2023.
The comedian said Ukraine had chosen the path to Europe and paid a high-price for it in Maidan - referring to casualties during the revolution in the central square of Kiev - adding that Ukraine would definitely join Europe and he would champion the cause as president if the people so wished.
He also categorically denied having links with Russia, a country he has not visited since the beginning of the armed conflict with pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Zelensky claimed he had never talked with Russian President Vladimir Putin in his life.
He held Poroshenko responsible for the war in eastern Ukraine continuing even after five years and promised to do everything possible to end it.
One of the crucial movements of the debate came when Zelensky went down on his knees to honor the memory of those who have died in the conflict in the Donbass region, with Poroshenko responding with the same gesture, but in front of the national flag.
The president, who mingled with the crowd while entering the stadium, spent nearly all of his energy in discrediting his opponent, calling him incompetent and weak in the face of the Russian threat.
He said external challenges demanded a president with courage, strength and international experience and asked Zelensky how he would fare in the role of the commander-in-chief.
He also accused the comedian of dodging the military draft in 2014 to fight in Donbass and questioned his ability to deal with Kremlin if he won the elections.
He came down hard on Zelensky after the latter questioned him over casualties in the ongoing armed conflict.
The president said this was incompetent posturing and accused his rival of blaming Ukrainian soldiers and their commander-in-chief for the death of citizens and troops, while turning a blind eye to Russian aggression.
He added that if Zelensky had been at the front and seen the battles and deaths with his own eyes, he wouldn't have made such statements.
Poroshenko insisted that a country at war with the aggressive Russia cannot be led by a man who, although talented, did not have any political experience, warning that millions of Ukrainians might have to pay a "very, very high" price for such a mistake.
By Ignacio Ortega