(Bloomberg) -- The two candidates for Ukraine’s presidency squared off in a long-awaited and often bad-tempered debate in Kiev’s Olympic Stadium, their last chance to sway opinion before Sunday’s runoff.
Until now, front-runner Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a TV comedian and political novice, had largely side-stepped live discussions with incumbent Petro Poroshenko, who’s languishing in the polls. Friday night’s bout saw barbs traded on topics from corruption to ties with billionaires and relations with Russia. Policy specifics, a notable absentee from Zelenskiy’s campaign, weren’t discussed.
“I’m not a politician -- I’m an ordinary person who came to break this system,” said Zelenskiy, the star of a popular TV show about a fictional president. He said he voted for Poroshenko when he was elected in 2014. “But I made a mistake.”
Poroshenko, a confectionery tycoon who took power after Ukrainian protesters booted out the nation’s Kremlin-backed leader, has been desperate to revive his flagging re-election bid. Twice as many people backed Zelenskiy in the ballot’s first round last month, an anti-establishment backlash driven by decades of corruption and the persistent conflict with Russian-backed forces.
While more Poroshenko supporters turned out on Friday -- booing and whistling when Zelenskiy spoke -- the candidate didn’t appear to land any significant blows on his rival. He largely reverted to the accusations he’s been making throughout campaigning, specifically how his opponent’s inexperience leaves him ill equipped to face Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
“I don’t believe Volodymyr dreams about dragging Ukraine back into the Russian empire, but Putin has this dream,” said Poroshenko, who’s presenting himself to voters as a safe pair of hands. “An actor can’t lead a war against an aggressor.”
There isn’t enough time for pollsters to gauge voters’ reaction to Poroshenko’s performance, with campaigning banned on Saturday. The debate -- which drew a crowd of 22,000 according to the Interior Ministry -- was Ukraine’s first since 2004 and stands in contrast to countries including Russia where elections are more tightly controlled.
--With assistance from Kateryna Choursina and Yulia Surkova.
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