Europe Politics

Ukraine presidential favorite Zelensky skips live TV debate – but it doesn't matter, experts say

Key Points
  • The favorite to win Ukraine's presidential election this weekend caused a stir on Sunday by skipping a live televised debate with incumbent Petro Poroshenko.
  • Volodymyr Zelensky had agreed to face the more seasoned politician and incumbent President Petro Poroshenko in a televised debate but the pair had disagreed on a date.
  • Another TV debate is expected Friday.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko holds a news conference at Olympiskiy Stadium on April 14, 2019 in Kiev, Ukraine. Zelensky, a television comedian making his first run for political office, challenged President Poroshenko to a debate at the stadium ahead of the April 21 vote, but due to a disagreement over dates, Zelensky did not show up to the event organized by Poroshenko.
Brendan Hoffman | Getty Images News | Getty Images

The favorite to win Ukraine's presidential election this weekend caused a stir on Sunday by skipping a live televised debate with incumbent Petro Poroshenko – but even that isn't expect to damage his chances of winning the upcoming final round of voting.

Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian and actor and the favorite to win a run-off round in the election this coming Sunday, had agreed to face the more seasoned politician and incumbent President Petro Poroshenko in a televised debate from Kiev's Olympic Stadium but the pair had disagreed on a date.

That left Poroshenko to speak on his own for 45 minutes while standing next to an empty lectern for his political opponent. Zelensky had not said that he was going to attend the debate, instead agreeing to attend a televised debate on Friday, April 21.

It's not the first bizarre episode in an election race that has enlivened Ukrainians who appear to have tired of the country's old political guard.

Zelensky accepted Poroshenko's invitation to hold debates with three conditions, one of them being that both candidates take live drug and alcohol tests to, as Zelenksy put it, "show the Ukrainian people that neither is an alcoholic or drug addict."

Experts say Zelenksy's "no-show" has not affected the likelihood that he will become president at a final run-off vote next on April 21.

"I still cannot see Poroshenko winning - he (Zelensky) is just too far ahead," Timothy Ash, senior emerging markets strategist at Bluebay Asset Management, told CNBC on Monday. "Poroshenko's negative ratings are just too high. He lost this election months ago," Ash added.

Unsurprisingly, Poroshenko used his uninterrupted platform on Sunday to criticize an absent Zelensky and his apparent lack of concrete manifesto.

"If he hides from people again, if he is afraid, we will invite him again. We will invite him every day to every live show for the whole country to see who it is going to elect for the next five years," Poroshenko told the audience Sunday, according to news reports.


Zelensky's nearest experience to the presidency is from playing the part of president in hit Ukraine comedy show, "Servant of the people."

Since deciding to actually run for office though, he has attracted a lot of young voters and, like the character he played, rails against corruption – something that Poroshenko has been accused of not doing enough to tackle.

Although he performed well in the first round of voting on March 31, critics say that Zelensky's policies don't have substance and have not been properly interrogated. Zelensky has sought to build a team of trusted advisors, including the country's former economy and finance ministers.

Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky seen talking to the media during his visit to the medical center for a test. On April 3, 2019 presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy declared his readiness to go to the debate before the second round of presidential elections with Ukrainian President and presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko, however, he voiced a number of conditions, in particular, the debate should be held at the Olympiyskiy stadium in Kiev, and candidates must pass a test for alcohol and drugs.
SOPA Images | LightRocket | Getty Images

Voters don't seem perturbed by Zelensky's lack of experience, in fact it seems a positive advantage for the candidate. He won 30% of the vote in a first round of the election, compared to Poroshenko's near 16%. Yuliya Tymoshenko was knocked out of the race with around 13% of the vote.

Most Ukrainians are so fed up with Poroshenko, it wouldn't matter if Zelensky missed the official TV debate on Friday even, according to one strategist.

"Zelensky is so far ahead in the polls that his no-show really isn't going to affect that," Chris Weafer, a senior partner at Macro-Advisory, told CNBC Monday.

"The big thing he has going for him is that he isn't President Petro Poroshenko. People want a change in politics, they want a shake-up of old politics. People are frustrated that there hasn't been this follow-up on the promises made in 2014 (at the last election), like pledges to tackle corruption, oligarchy in the business world and promises to boost the economy," he said.

Still, Moscow-based Weafer noted that Friday's debates would be a "big test" of Zelensky who would be facing an opponent used to having his politics scrutinized.

"Poroshenko is a more accomplished performer but people are no longer interested in his message. Even if he did make promises on Friday, he has no credibility anymore. So I think even if Zelenksy didn't show up again, it wouldn't affect the outcome of the run-off."