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Ukraine presidential candidates finally agree debate

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko shows the empty lectern of presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky for a debate before a high-stakes run-off vote at Olympiysky Stadium in Kiev on April 14, 2019. – Ukraine’s vote frontrunner Volodymyr Zelensky did not show up for a debate with his incumbent rival Petro Poroshenko at the Kiev’s stadium, which seats over 70,000 people. The actor Volodymyr Zelensky’s predictable no-show prompted President Petro Poroshenko to stage a one-man debate at Kiev’s Olympic Stadium as several thousand supporters flooded a nearby square. (Photo by Sergei SUPINSKY / AFP)

Comedian Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko on Wednesday finally agreed to a debate to close a presidential campaign that has at times descended into farce.

The press teams of both candidates, however, confirmed the pair would meet on Friday afternoon at the sports arena that seats 70,000 people, ahead of Sunday’s decisive second-round vote.

Poroshenko originally called the event for last Sunday but Zelensky was a no-show, leading the incumbent to hold a one-man debate next to an empty podium at a Kiev stadium.

With Zelensky scoring 72 percent support to Poroshenko’s 25, according to the most recent opinion poll, this could be the last chance the incumbent has to boost his flagging campaign.

Until he announced his candidacy at the start of this year, 41-year-old Zelensky’s political experience was limited to playing Ukraine’s president in a popular TV show.

On Wednesday, his team was promoting the debate on social media, encouraging the public to be “witness to an event that will go down in the history of Ukraine”.

They said it would be the “largest scale” event of its kind ever staged in the country.

The two men took drug tests earlier this month, after Zelensky insisted this was a requirement before any debate.

Poroshenko, 53, has long pressed his opponent to meet him in a debate and a group of Ukrainian news media this week demanded Zelensky hold a press conference to answer their questions.

But the actor has almost completely eschewed traditional media and campaign events, preferring instead to communicate with voters through social media and comedy shows.

Critics say the electorate know next to nothing about what the untested Zelensky would do in power.

But supporters say only a fresh face can clear up Ukraine’s endemic corruption, kickstart a stalling economy and hope to address an ongoing conflict with Russia-backed separatists in the east.

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