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'It Wasn't A Debate': Six Takeaways From The Poroshenko-Zelenskiy Stadium Showdown

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (left) and comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy face off at the debate on April 19.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (left) and comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy face off at the debate on April 19.

KYIV -- With rock music blaring and their posses by their sides, the two men strutted onto the stage, pumped their fists in the air, and sized each other up in front of some 22,000 rowdy onlookers inside Kyiv's Olimpiyskiy Stadium.

And then the clock started and the insults flew.

It had all the trappings of a heavyweight fight. But this was the final round of Ukraine's presidential election campaign.

With incumbent Petro Poroshenko trailing far behind comedian and political newcomer Volodymyr Zelenskiy in the opinion polls, the April 19 main event was perhaps Poroshenko's last chances to seize momentum before the April 21 runoff vote.

The showdown followed weeks of debate about the debate, including where and when it would take place, and how the two would make it work while speaking from stages on opposite ends of a soccer pitch in central Kyiv. In the days before the event, both competitors even submitted to drug testing that was live-streamed to the voting public. In the end, with clean bills of health, they squared off at lecterns side-by-side.

Ukrainian President, Challenger Face Off In Preelection Debate
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And in the end, it was less of a traditional debate about the many serious issues facing a country of some 44 million that is mired in corruption scandals, struggling economically, and embroiled in a war with Russia-backed separatists -- and more of a name-calling and shouting match.

Still, there were telling moments that provided glimpses into the character of each candidate and what they would bring to the office of president.

Here are some of the key takeaways.

Zelenskiy Came Suited-Up For Presidential Role

The comic whose only political experience is playing a fictional president on a TV sitcom showed up in a three-piece suit and came off as well-prepared to go after Poroshenko with questions and critiques crowdsourced from voters on social media.

This seemed to catch Poroshenko, a seasoned politician and polished speaker, off-guard. Some of his prepared remarks sounded rigid and when speaking off-the-cuff he stumbled, opening a space for Zelenskiy supporters to drown him out with chants of "Get out!" and "Down with Poroshenko!"

Poroshenko Knelt The Right Way

Zelenskiy grilled Poroshenko on his record as commander in chief in the conflict in the east and in particular the battles for Illovaysk and Debaltseve, which cost the lives of hundreds if not thousands of Ukrainian soldiers.

But it was Poroshenko who came off looking more respectful toward Ukraine's war veterans.

Responding to previous claims from Poroshenko that Zelenskiy would "get on his knees" before Russian President Vladimir Putin if that would end the war, the comic said he was "ready and will now go down on my knees before every child who waited but never saw his father return, I am ready to kneel before every woman who waited but never saw her husband return, and I am inviting you [to do likewise]."

Zelenskiy did so, facing the crowd. Poroshenko, though, turned and knelt, facing two war veterans who lost limbs in the war, as well as Tetyana Rychkova, a lawmaker who previously ran supplies as a volunteer to troops on the front lines before and after her husband was killed in action in 2014.

Zelenskiy appeals to the crowd at the debate.
Zelenskiy appeals to the crowd at the debate.

But Did He Miss His Chance?

For Poroshenko, who trails in the polls, one way to try to turn the tide might have been to challenge his inexperienced opponent on the issues and push him for specifics on policies -- something critics say has been sorely lacking in Zelenskiy's campaign.

He tried that tack to a degree but often seemed caught up in the name-calling, at times appearing frustrated or angry. At one point he left his lectern and approached Zelenskiy's -- a moment that caused some in the crowd near the stage to gasp in anticipation of what he might do or say.

Voters May Not Be Swayed

Given the lack of substance in the on-stage discussion and the small window of time left before the runoff, many observers -- including some of the candidates' backers on stage -- said the debate was unlikely to change the minds of voters.

"I don't know if what they said tonight really is enough to reach those who still haven't decided"” Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, the deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration, told RFE/RL as she followed Poroshenko off stage.

It seemed even less likely to sway those who have already decided or were leaning one way going in -- like Nadezhda Serhina and Ivan Roslyk, a married couple who are both 27 and made an eight-hour trip from the southeastern city of Dnipro by hitching a ride with a mail carrier -- were ready to remain unswayed.

They said at the start of the debate that they planned to vote for Zelenskiy no matter what happened, with Roslyk saying that the comic was a "real person" who is "not from the political elite."

People are watching a debate on the square in front of the stadium.
People are watching a debate on the square in front of the stadium.

'A Disappointing Result'

Observers may be hard-pressed to choose a winner in the debate. Trying to judge by crowd size and loudness would be tough: The stadium appeared to be filled more with Poroshenko supporters, but most of those close to the stage and microphones were backers of Zelenskiy.

But at least in some voters' eyes, there was a loser: the Ukrainian public.

Kyiv residents Anastasia Mekheda, 25, and Maksym Sodynik, 22, were disappointed with the quality of the candidates' discussion.

"It wasn't a debate. I don't know what it was," Mekheda said. "It was a lot of blah blah blah."

"They had a chance to give us answers," she continued. "But we didn't get any answers. It was a disappointing result."

But Ukraine Also Won

Russian officials panned the debate, likening it to a circus and worse. But despite its raucous nature it was seen by many as evidence of a more open political atmosphere than in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has steered clear of campaign debates over nearly two decades in power.

In an article in the Russian newspaper Vedomosti earlier this month, columnist Vladimir Ruvinsky argued that Ukraine's televised presidential debates offered a powerful and positive image of Ukrainian politics.

"Back in 2017, Putin asked the Russian people: 'Do we want Russia to be like Ukraine?' The answer in 2019 might be a resounding 'Yes,'" Ruvinsky wrote.

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