KYIV -- Ukraine’s two leading presidential contenders clashed in an epic stadium debate before tens of thousands of cheering supporters, hammering one another on everything from the economy and rampant corruption to the festering war against Russia-backed separatists in the country's east.
With incumbent Petro Poroshenko trailing Volodymyr Zelenskiy in the polls, the April 19 event, held in Kyiv’s Olimpiyskiy Stadium, was one of Poroshenko’s last chances to seize momentum before the April 21 run-off vote.
The event was only the latest chapter in a rollicking election campaign pitting Poroshenko, a tycoon made wealthy by a candy manufacturing company, against Zelenskiy, a comic actor whose only political experience is playing a fictional president on a TV sitcom.
Thousands of supporters of both candidates—many with blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags draped over their shoulders—jammed into the stadium, milling about between two stages that were set up facing each other on either end of the field.
Supporters for each side tried to drown out the other side’s candidate, as the two stood on a stage and answered debate question while also giving rousing patriotic appeals.
"We achieved more during my presidency than during the entire post-independence period,” Poroshenko said.
“I am a simple man, a simple man, who has come to destroy this system,” Zelenskiy said at a later moment, as he attacked Poroshenko for his wealth.
"The enrichment of the people turned out to be enrichment of his people," he said. "How did it turn out that Ukraine is the poorest country with the richest president?"
Russia loomed over the event, as it has for entire election campaign, and the question of who is best able to deal with Moscow, which annexed the Crimea Peninsula five years ago and has stoked a war in the east that has killed more than 13,000 people.
"The Ukrainian people have a right to know exactly what a candidate for the presidency of a country at war is going to do, how to defeat the enemy, and not spread the Russian fakes,” Poroshenko said.
Ahead of time, Ukrainian bands performed for the crowds, giving the event the feeling of a combined rock concert and soccer match. Riot police and security personnel were out in force, with barriers separating the rival groups of supporters.
Nadezhda Serhina and her husband Ivan Roslyk told RFE/RL that they made the 8-hour drive from the southeast city of Dnipro, hitching a ride with a postal driver, to attend the debate.
Serhina, 27, said they were disillusioned with Poroshenko because of the slow pace of change, his failure to stop the war, and because under him oligarchs continued to wield power.
“We support Zelesnkiy because he’s a real person and he’s for the youth... and he’s not from the political elite,” Roslyk, 27, said.
Both Russian speakers, they hoped Zelenskiy, a Russian-speaker who has been criticized for not speaking more Ukrainian on the campaign trail, would cancel or else soften Ukrainian language quotas put in place under Poroshenko.
“We speak Russian and Ukrainian together. For me, language isn’t an issue. It’s important to understand each other...in both languages,” Serhina said.
Opinion polls suggest that Zelenskiy may deliver a devastating defeat to Poroshenko and become Ukraine’s sixth president since independence.
Zelenskiy won the election’s first round on March 31, winning with 30 percent of the votes compared to Poroshenko’s 16 percent.
Polling figures show Ukrainians appear willing to give a political novice a shot amid disillusionment with a Poroshenko presidency.
His five years in office have been marred by rampant corruption, a fall in living standards, and the war which has also displaced nearly 2 million.
Poroshenko’s campaign has shown no sign of giving up, using “black PR” to smear Zelenskiy and try to climb back into the race.
While previous elections have seen televised debates among candidates, there has never been a stadium debate before.
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.
A second debate was scheduled at Ukraine's Public TV Studio shortly after the stadium event. That debate was scheduled to comply with the country's election laws, which say a formal debate must be held at the studio of the public broadcaster.
However, as promised, Zelenskiy refused to appear at the second event, leaving Poroshenko with the broadcast to himself.
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 his Telegram channel, 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,” Poroshenko’s message began, and “motivate [Ukrainians] to come on April 21 and vote for Ukraine, not Malorossiya.”
Malorossiya is 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 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.