A comedian tipped to take over Ukraine’s presidency and his incumbent rival go head-to-head in an extraordinary stadium debate Friday, as campaigning reaches its grand finale before a weekend vote.
Polls show Volodymyr Zelensky, a 41-year-old standup comic with no political experience, handily defeating President Petro Poroshenko in a second-round of voting on Sunday.
The television star’s bid started as a long shot but he leapfrogged establishment candidates amid frustration over corruption, economic trouble and a conflict with Moscow-backed insurgents in the country’s east.
Some 60,000 spectators are expected to attend the first and only policy head-to-head of the campaign, set to take place in Kiev’s Olympic Stadium amid beefed-up security.
Rather than appear on the same stage, the set-up of the stadium on Friday afternoon suggested the men would occupy separate platforms at either end of the venue’s soccer pitch.
Police battled major traffic jams as supporters were being bussed in from the regions.
The debate will bring to a close a race that at times descended into farce as the candidates exchanged insults and underwent drug tests at Zelensky’s insistence.
On Friday, 53-year-old Poroshenko fired a new salvo against his opponent, questioning his ability to serve as commander-in-chief and calling him a draft dodger.
“The weaker the president of Ukraine, the stronger the president of Russia,” Poroshenko told several thousand supporters at a rally ahead of the debate.
Poroshenko says he is the only candidate who can take on Russia’s Vladimir Putin and is expected to strike out at the inexperience of the untested Zelensky during the head-to-head.
He may also slam his rival’s close ties to controversial oligarch Igor Kolomoysky.