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Poroshenko Reinvented: Apologies, New Promises, And Slick Moves May Be 'Too Little, Too Late'

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko takes selfies with supporters at Olimpiyskyi Stadium in Kyiv on April 14.

KYIV -- There is one presidential candidate Ukrainians have become accustomed to watching sing and dance on stage.

It is not incumbent President Petro Poroshenko.

And yet there the 53-year-old was, gyrating and pumping his fist beside yellow-overall-clad rockers at a campaign rally at Kyiv's Olimpiyskiy Stadium on April 14.

Fighting for his political survival -- one week before the election.

Then, in another act his aides said was unscripted, Poroshenko led a gushing crowd of a few thousand people inside the 70,000-seat stadium for nearly an hour, rousing them with patriotic chants and posing for selfies with supporters.

Hours earlier, at a press conference that was supposed to be a debate with comedian and presidential front-runner Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Poroshenko made his case for a second term and pleaded for another chance to deliver on promises that many Ukrainians say have been unfulfilled during a presidency that has seen his popularity plummet.

Zelenskiy refused to attend Poroshenko's debate, demanding the two go head-to-head at the stadium on April 19 instead.

Standing beside an empty lectern bearing his opponent's name, the incumbent president -- who campaigned in the first round on a platform that hailed such achievements as steering Ukraine on a westward path, securing an independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, and halting Russian aggression that has cleaved large swathes of his country's territory and caused the deaths of 13,000 people -- apologized for mistakes made during his five-year rule and promised to do better in a second term.

Petro Poroshenko, speaks next to an empty podium prepared for his opponent, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, at a failed attempt to hold a debate in Kyiv on April 14.
Petro Poroshenko, speaks next to an empty podium prepared for his opponent, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, at a failed attempt to hold a debate in Kyiv on April 14.

"Are there any mistakes? Let's talk about the mistakes," an uncharacteristically contrite Poroshenko said. "There are, and I admit them. But one who does nothing does not make a mistake."

After the devastating second-place finish in the first round of Ukraine's presidential election in which Zelenskiy won nearly twice as many votes as him (30.24 percent to 15.95 percent in the final tally), Poroshenko is attempting to reinvent himself and his campaign and thereby reach out to voters frustrated by the slow pace of change, runaway corruption, and the ongoing war in the country's east.

But he is also doing it in an unorthodox style more akin to his challenger.

Song-and-dance routines onstage? Check.

Slick social-media videos and messenger-app sticker packs? Check.

Viral-ready one-liners aimed at his opponent? Check.

Too Little, Too Late?

The attempted reinvention of the confectionery billionaire comes as fresh polling highlights what many experts believe to be an insurmountable gap between him and Zelenskiy, 41, a political novice who has gone to great lengths to avoid talking specifics about his policies and potential cabinet appointments.

A poll released this week by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) showed 72.2 percent of decided voters will choose Zelenskiy in the April 21 runoff election, compared to 25.4 percent who will go for Poroshenko.

A survey the Sociological Group "Rating" last week showed 71 percent of decided voters in favor of Zelenskiy and 29 percent for Poroshenko.

Getting specific during his press conference about his mistakes as president, Poroshenko admitted he was wrong to appoint business cronies to senior positions in his government, but said he had recently fired problematic national security officials and regional governors.

He admitted it had taken years to set up an anti-corruption court but said he had appointed judges this month to launch it.

Poroshenko also said he should have reached out to civil-society leaders and anti-corruption activists sooner, though he said discussions with them were now under way.

And he promised to be more transparent in communicating decisions, pledging to bring more young reformers into the government the next time. If there will be a next time.

"I think this was a clear olive branch," Olha Onuch, an associate professor in politics at the University of Manchester who researches Ukraine, told RFE/RL in regard to Poroshenko's activist outreach.

While she said some members of the anti-corruption group appreciated the gesture, some "scoffed" at the president's move, which she believed "may be too little too late" to help him win reelection.

Mimicking 'Reinvention'

Other promises, such as not tapping business partners and close allies for high-level positions, Onuch chalked up to "electoral rhetoric at its best."

"We know that he has appointed his business associates and family members to certain posts in the past...and included them on his party list," she said. "The voters would have to turn a blind eye to this, so I am not sure how convinced the voters will be based on past experience [with Poroshenko]."

Petro Poroshenko (left) and Volodymyr Zelenskiy will face off in the decisive second round on April 21.
Petro Poroshenko (left) and Volodymyr Zelenskiy will face off in the decisive second round on April 21.

Polling suggests they are not at all convinced by the incumbent's promises.

About 50 percent of voters surveyed by KIIS said they would not vote for Poroshenko under any circumstances. The Rating group's study highlighted voters' negative attitude toward him this way: 41 percent of those surveyed plan to vote for the comic actor Zelenskiy not because they support him, but because they want to vote against Poroshenko.

And analysts like Volodymyr Fesenko, director of the Kyiv-based Penta Center for Political Studies, say Poroshenko's reinvention isn't sincere.

The president, Fesenko said, "is trying to create the impression of a 'new Poroshenko' for voters" ahead of the runoff. However, he added, the president's efforts appear to merely "mimic reinvention."

Only Room For One Showman In This Race?

Zelenskiy, whose own antics have garnered much attention despite the lack of substance in his messages, also appears to have been unimpressed with the "new Poroshenko."

"A showman can become a president but it is sad that a president became a showman," he said in an April 15 video published on his popular social-media accounts.

Poroshenko is still holding out hope that his new look and new tactics will close what these polls have shown to be an ever-widening gap between him and Zelenskiy and carry him to an improbable victory in the April 21 vote.

But many observers say there simply is not enough time. "The gap with Zelenskiy is so huge that only some extreme measures to rig or disrupt elections," says Volodymyr Ishchenko, a senior lecturer at the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute's Department of Sociology.

"Yet, in that case he wouldn't be seen as a legitimate president, neither by the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians nor by Western governments."