FILE - This combination of file pictures shows presidential candidates, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (L), taken Nov. 3, 2018, and Ukrainian comic actor and showman Volodymyr Zelenskiy, taken March 6, 2019.
FILE - This combination of file pictures shows presidential candidates, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (L), taken Nov. 3, 2018, and Ukrainian comic actor and showman Volodymyr Zelenskiy, taken March 6, 2019.

KYIV - Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko agreed on Thursday to go head-to-head with comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a debate at the country's biggest stadium, as flamboyant media spectacle and social media drive the race for the presidency.                           

Zelenskiy, a 41-year-old actor best known in the country for playing the president in a television show, is favorite to become Ukraine's next leader after he dominated a first-round vote on March 31, despite many initially dismissing his candidacy as a joke.

Observers say Ukraine's two-round election is one of the country's most unpredictable votes since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

The stakes are high: the country of 45 million people - which wants to one day join the European Union - is mired in a smoldering war with Moscow-backed separatists in the industrial east.

The conflict that broke out after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 has cost some 13,000 lives.

It was Poroshenko who initially suggested a debate.

Unusual conditions

Ukraine's leader is eager to spar with his political novice rival, giving him a chance to show off his debating skills and outflank the comedian before a run-off vote on April 21.

But he had to agree to a number of unusual conditions set down by Zelenskiy, including a requirement for both of them to undergo medical tests to prove they do not abuse alcohol or drugs.

Zelenskiy also wanted the debate to be held at Kyiv's Olympic Stadium, which seats over 70,000 people.

"[If you want] a stadium, let it be a stadium," Poroshenko said in a video address.

Zelenskiy is ahead with more than 30 percent of the first-round vote, nearly twice that of Poroshenko, on almost 16 percent.

The frontrunner has shunned traditional rallies, instead performing satirical shows and blurring the line between reality and fantasy.

He capitalized on frustration over corruption and economic trouble to leapfrog his establishment opponents.

'More comfortable in a circus'?

The 53-year-old Poroshenko - who was elected president after a Kyiv uprising ousted a Kremlin-backed leader in 2014 - warned that an election debate was no laughing matter and an election would determine the country's fate for decades to come.

"A debate is not staged for a stadium spectacle," Poroshenko said in an apparent jab at Zelenskiy's lack of political experience.

Zelenskiy accepted a debate after a viral campaign on social media urged him to publicly share his political opinions and proposals.

But he added the conditions, which included the demand that Poroshenko should stop calling him a "clown" and a "puppet," a reference to the frontrunner's alleged political ties to oligarch Igor Kolomoisky.

On Friday, both men are set to undergo medical tests.

"If Zelenskiy is more comfortable in a stadium or a circus, then out of respect for his constituents we recognize him as a candidate, the winner of the first round," said Oleg Medvedev, spokesman for Poroshenko's campaign.

On Thursday evening, Zelenskiy also suggested that former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko moderate the upcoming debate to guarantee "equal opportunities."

Poroshenko's long-term rival was one of 39 candidates who contested the first round. She came third, taking more than 13 percent of the vote.

Political observer Pavlo Kazarin said both men wanted to expose each other's weaknesses.

"The president's team wants to force Volodymyr Zelenskiy to start talking," he wrote. "Zelenskiy's staff wants to impose their own agenda on Poroshenko."

High drama

The increasingly sensational nature of the presidential campaign has divided Ukrainian society and set social media alight.

"Netflix is crying, HBO already realized that Game of Thrones should have had a different subject," Oksana Pavlenko, founder of an online magazine for women, wrote on Facebook, referring to the award-winning fantasy series.

But many said the debate - if it takes place - was a serious affair.

"It looks like the debates at the Olympic Stadium will become a political duel whose result will show whether the incumbent will be able to reverse the course of the campaign," tweeted Ukrainian lawmaker Mustafa Nayyem.

By law, televised election debates are to be held on the last Friday before the second-round runoff, which would be April 19.

The last election debate between presidential candidates in Ukraine took place in 2004.