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Ukraine's president left to debate himself as comedian leading polls is a no-show

Comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who won the first round of the presidential election, has said he will take part in a debate on April 19.
Image: Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko holds a news conference at Olympiskiy Stadium in Kiev on April 14, 2019.
President Petro Poroshenko speaks next to an empty tribune prepared for his opponent comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Sunday.Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images

It was a one-man show for Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko on Sunday as he held a lonely debate at the country's largest sports stadium ahead of next week’s presidential runoff.

Comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who won the first round of the election on March 31, didn't make an appearance at Kiev’s 70,000-seat Olimpiyskiy Stadium.

Zelenskiy, who's never held office, had challenged the incumbent Poroshenko to a debate in the stadium on Friday, April 19 — two days before voters head to the polls. Poroshenko wanted it to be held Sunday, but Zelenskiy never agreed to the Sunday debate.

The spectacle was the latest twist in a bizarre campaign that has seen both candidates submit to drug and alcohol tests.

With Zelenskiy absent Sunday, Poroshenko stood in front of an empty lectern with the comedian’s name written on it and spent nearly an hour talking about his platform and answering questions from the media.

There were no spectators inside the stadium, but a crowd of what appeared to be thousands of people listened outside, cheering and waving Ukrainian flags.

Some in the crowd chanted: “Vova (diminutive of Volodymyr), come out!,” urging Zelenskiy to make a last-minute appearance.

On Sunday, Poroshenko quipped that he was not holding a “press conference” and was “simply waiting for Zelenskiy [to show up].”

He lashed out at the comedian, comparing his campaign to a “silent movie" and saying that Ukraine does not need a “virtual” president — a reference to Zelenskiy's frequent use of social media to talk to his voters.

“When a candidate just appears on the screen and says nothing, it’s just a scene from Servant of the People,” Poroshenko said, referring to a TV show in which Zelenskiy plays a history teacher turned president.

The debates have become a focal point ahead of the runoff.

Zelenskiy, who won nearly twice as many votes as Poroshenko in the first round, has been accused of being deliberately vague about where he stands on issues like foreign policy and the economy.

A poll conducted days before the first round of the election revealed that 74 percent of Ukrainians want to see a debate take place before the runoff. No campaigning is allowed the day before the voters head to the polls on April 21, making April 19 the last chance for the two candidates to appeal to voters.

In an interview with Ukrainian channel ICTV Monday, Poroshenko said: "I believe that the debate is a key element of democracy.”

Poroshenko himself did not turn up for a debate in 2014.

People pass by a billboard depicting Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin looking at each other in Kiev. Writing on the board reads: "A decisive choice."Efrem Lukatsky / AP

In what became the only direct interaction between the two candidates on Thursday, Poroshenko showed up uninvited to a political show on a channel that belongs to Ihor Kolomoisky, an oligarch accused of being the real power behind Zelenskiy's campaign.

Zelenskiy called in during the show and said he was not able to be physically present because he was in Paris for a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron.

The two spoke in heightened tones, continuously interrupting each other, while talking about the date for a debate as astounded hosts and audience members looked on.

Zelenskiy eventually ended the call abruptly, leading some to question his conduct.

Nonetheless a new poll released Thursday showed Zelenskiy's advantage remains untouched.

Twenty-nine percent of voters who've made up their minds will cast their ballot for Poroshenko on April 21, it found, while more than twice as many — 71 percent — will vote for Zelenskiy.

Whether or not voters in the war-torn country get to see the two contenders debate in public before next week's final vote, many seem steadfast in their desire for new leadership.