President Poroshenko (left) faces an uphill battle as he attempts to win over votes from his rival Volodymyr Zelenskyi, who got nearly two times more votes after the first round of Ukraine's presidential election on 31 March
An advertisement for the Zelenskyi campaign. It is written in Ukrainian “Ze president, servant of the people”. The first letters “Ze” (Зе) are a play of words on the English article “the,” i.e. THE only president; and also “Ze (Зе)” as the first letter of Zelenskyi’s surname. Also, green is Zelenyi (Зeлений) in Ukrainian, meaning also “young, unskilled.”
“I agree to debate, but…”
When the results of the exit polls were announced after the first round, President Poroshenko declared that, prior to the final vote, a live debate must take place between the presidential candidates. Zelenskyi on that day hinted he might agree to it, but later backtracked with a frivolous declaration that he’ll come to the debates only if his comic troop’s schedule allows.
According to Ukrainian law, debates must take place on the last Friday before the second round – that is, 19 April – in the studio of the public broadcaster. The broadcaster had sent invitations to attend debates to the three leading candidates prior to the first round, but both Zelenskyi and Poroshenko had ignored them. Only second runner-up Yuliya Tymoshenko had come, and was swiftly gone.
During the campaign, Zelenskyi had avoided live broadcasts and had not showed up for at least two interviews he had promised to come to. So, naturally, the intrigue grew: would he muster the courage to show up to live debates and give audiences a whiff of Zelenskyi the politician-to-be, not the actor he is known as so far?
Then, suddenly, the first video came like a bolt out of the blue.
Zelenskyi’s team produced a masterful clip which read like an invitation to a duel. In it, the leading candidate invited his competitor to finally hold the debates. But not in the studio of the public broadcaster, as described by the law – nothing less than Ukraine’s main stadium could do. He gave a number of other conditions:
“I am waiting for you here, in the Olimpiyskyi Stadium.
The candidates should undergo medical tests and prove that they don’t have alcoholic or drug addiction.
You should publicly state that debates will be held not with the puppet of Moscow, not with a clown, not with a “little Russian” [derogatory name for an ethnic Ukrainian originating from the Russian Empire – Ed] but with a presidential candidate.
I give you 24 hours for the answer.“
Possibly, Zelenskyi expected that Poroshenko won’t accept these conditions and thus it would be possible to avoid debates altogether and come out as a winner. The request to submit analyses was a spin on a popular Russian propaganda line that Poroshenko is a drug addict and alcoholic (in reality, Poroshenko has diabetes, which rules out alcohol consumption).
In his video response, the president asked Zelenskyi to come to the Olimpiyskyi stadium the next day at 9 AM to undergo all the medical tests and agreed to hold the debates in the stadium.
An interesting fact is that Poroshenko’s video is shot as a single fragment, without any cuts or special effects, while Zelenskyi’s dramatic video calls to mind a show with Gladiators fighting in the arena.
The medical test conundrum
The next day at 9AM, Poroshenko came to the stadium, where a special medical laboratory for athletes is located, and underwent all the medical tests.
But not Zelenskyi. Instead, he went to the Eurolab clinic, which belongs to his friend and supporter Andriy Palchevskyi. Coincidentally, the second owner of the clinic turned out to be a Russian citizen.
The medical worker who took a sample of Zelenskyi’s blood turned out to be Vladislav Kiriakulov, a participant of “Master chief” culinary show and an actor of the “Svaty” TV series produced by Zelenskyi’s show “Kvartal 95.” In Eurolab, he works as a masseur. Why did Zelenskyi trust only his friend, who by have the necessary medical qualification, to draw the blood sample?
Zelenskyi’s next fail happened while sharing the results of the expertise. First, he published a document dated by 2 April. But the televised submission of medical analyses took place on 5 April. Zelenskyi commented that the difference in dates was just a technical mistake of the clinic and quickly produced a new document with the results.
One may only wonder about the real reason for the conundrum with dates. However, the fact that Zelenskyi didn’t want to use the well-certified laboratory on the stadium and instead resorted to his friend’s clinic prompts suspicions that he has something to hide.
Petro Poroshenko, on the other hand, passed all the tests easily and joked on Zelenskyi’s absence with the words of a popular Ukrainian song: “I have come and you aren’t here.” He also commented that:
“I am firmly convinced that he [Zelenskyi] will find the courage to come, and the debate will take place… I think it’s useful to conduct the debate in several stages. Debate on the position of Commander-in-Chief, about the program of strengthening defense and security. The second stage should be on foreign policy. And the third stage – on the protection of constitutional rights and freedoms of Ukrainian citizens.
I believe that [medical exams] are absolutely necessary. I would like to make appropriate changes to the legislation making this procedure compulsory. Because the issue of the absence of alcohol and drug addiction is a question of national security…
I respect the voters… and those who voted for Volodymyr Zelenskyi as well. They are not indifferent, they have expressed their opinion. And I will do everything possible to convince them to vote for me in the second round.”
Soon after, Zelenskyi released another video where he demands to make Yulia Tymoshenko, who took 3rd place in the first round of elections, “the guarantor of honest rules” in the debate. He gave her (or them) 24 hours to answer.
Tymoshenko later refused. Now nobody knows whether the debate will take place.
Meanwhile, Poroshenko released another video, urging Zelenskyi:
“not to search for reasons and not place conditions. And don’t hide behind anybody. It’s not nice. Be a man. Come to the debates. Stadium? So be it. I am waiting for you!“
As of 7 April, Poroshenko had proposed 14 April as the date for the debates.
Poroshenko attempts to rebound
The pre-election polls showed Zelenskyi to be far ahead of his nearest competitors, Petro Poroshenko and Yuliya Tymoshenko. Still, the results of the first round were like a cold shower for Poroshenko and his supporters: Zelenskyi got nearly two times more votes.
Right after the announcement of the results of exit polls on 31 March, Poroshenko told that he “understood the reasons for your [Zelenskyi’s supporters] protest. I have understood you. Please, hear me as well.”
It was Poroshenko’s first admission of his own mistakes in a very long time, even if it was quite vague. Later, on 6 April, during a meeting with civil activists from a number of organizations which according to them should have happened a long time ago, Poroshenko admitted more specifically that his main two mistakes over the last years were staff appointments and the communication policy.
However, it will be difficult for Poroshenko to win over hearts merely by words. Poroshenko still has two weeks to make crucial decisions which many believe is his only chance to get reelected. At the meeting with civil activists, Poroshenko discussed key decisions which need to be made and agreed with their proposals.
Particularly, Poroshenko agreed that the NAZK (the National Agency for Prevention of Corruption), and Special anti-corruption prosecutor’s office, major anti-corruption institutions which had been mired in scandals and ineffective work, should be restarted; that the Security Service of Ukraine should be deprived of its function of economic investigations, which it had too often used to pressure businesses.
Poroshenko also admitted that Serhiy Semochko, the Deputy head of the External intelligence service, is ill-suited for this position. Semochko, who had previously been accused in corruption, found himself in the center of a scandal in late 2018 as it came to light that his wife and daughter hold Russian citizenship – a security risk in a country at de-facto war.
As well, the civil activists voiced a demand to suspend a key suspect in the case of the murder of civic activist Kateryna Handziuk, from his position. Kateryna’s father and friends accused Andriy Hordieiev, Head of the Kherson Oblast Administration, as being implicated in the vicious acid attack on the Kherson whistle-blower in July 2018 from which she died three months later. Those who ordered her assassination are not yet found, and her friends who started the “Who killed Katia Handziuk” movement to punish them suspect that the reason is because high-standing officials and politicians are involved.
Following the meeting, Hordieiev finally resigned. At the meeting, where activists of the “Who killed Katia Handziuk?” movement were present, Poroshenko promised that more decisions regarding the personalities of those suspected in the murder will follow.
Finally, Poroshenko radically changed his election strategy. The incumbent President, who had previously ignored the youth, instead focusing on the 50+ age segment, has made note of Zelenskyi’s aggressive digital strategy. Poroshenko reinvigorated his Telegram channel, which has gathered 43.5k followers over the week after the first round, where he makes attempts at informal communication with his followers.
As well, the video responses to Zelenskyi were outside his usual communication strategy. His social networks now contain more polls, and he has appealed to his followers to create regional groups of supporters. This all is intended as proof that he is interested in the opinions of ordinary voters and is open to communication. But whether this will be enough to defeat his 49% anti-rating over the remaining two weeks is far from clear.