Volodymyr Zelensky, a professional comedian, is poised for a landslide win in Ukraine’s presidential elections this Sunday, according to the last polls of the campaign that showed the incumbent Petro Poroshenko struggling to stay in office.
The only head-to-head debate between the rival politicians — set to take place at Kiev’s Olympic football stadium on Friday night in front of tens of thousands of spectators — is a last chance for Mr Poroshenko to upset his politically inexperienced challenger.
Officials plan tight security measures, with up to 10,000 security personnel on site and streets closed to minimise the risk of clashes between rival sets of supporters.
The election of Mr Zelensky, an actor and comedian who played a fictional Ukrainian president on a national television show, would thrust Ukraine into further uncertainty, after years of simmering conflict with Russia and economic weakness.
But polls suggest voters are likely to turn their backs on Mr Poroshenko, a confectionery magnate who claims pro-western credentials but has a patchy reform record. “A miracle would be needed to cardinally change the outcome,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, a political analyst.
Support for Mr Zelensky has surged sharply since he mustered 30 per cent of the votes in the election’s first round on March 31, double the share of Mr Poroshenko.
Polling data released on Thursday showed that Mr Zelensky had 58 per cent support among voters intending to cast ballots, compared with Mr Poroshenko’s 22 per cent support.
Since announcing his candidacy during a New Year’s Eve comedy act, Mr Zelensky has largely ducked in-depth interviews and unscripted appearances, helping him to avoid direct questions about his credentials for the presidency. Civil activists and media this week demanded Mr Zelensky hold at least one press conference.
Instead, Mr Zelensky has exploited video appearances to surf a rising wave of anti-establishment support.
While admitting failing to decisively crack down on corruption, Mr Poroshenko has urged voters to “think” carefully before electing Mr Zelensky, warning that reform achievements and “preserving the nation” are at stake, with Russia a persistent threat. Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014 and has fostered a war in eastern Ukraine that continues to smoulder into a sixth year.
Mr Zelensky has said little about how he intends to address relations with Russia and negotiations on ending the war.
Meanwhile, a crucial point of concern to Ukraine’s western backers is adherence to a multibillion-dollar IMF financing programme tied to politically unpopular measures such as increasing utility tariffs. The election winner also faces challenges including a peak in foreign debt payments this year and next.
Mr Zelensky’s popularity is in part rooted in his role in the Servant of the People TV series, where he plays an honest school teacher combating corrupt elites after being accidentally elected president.
Mr Fesenko said Mr Zelensky’s successful exploitation of his showmanship skills had proved decisive in winning over disillusioned voters. “It was the most uncharacteristic election contest . . . in the form of a show,” Mr Fesenko said.
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