Ukraine’s sensational presidential election campaign took another surreal twist on Friday, as the incumbent and his comedian challenger, Volodymr Zelensky, both underwent blood tests on live television ahead of a debate.
Zelensky, a comedian with no political experience who played the role of the country’s President on a sitcom for three years, is the frontrunner in the race after winning the first round of voting.
A drug and alcohol test was one of his conditions for taking part in a debate with Petro Poroshenko, as the incumbent seeks to make up ground ahead of the run-off on April 21.
Poroshenko, who has been in his post since 2014, agreed to the stipulation, live-streaming his test on Facebook. “We are creating new traditions,” he said as his blood was taken, according to Agence France-Presse.
Reporters watched on a television screen as the test took place in another room at Kiev’s Olympic Stadium, where the debate is set to take place – as per another of Zelensky’s demands.
The initial results came back negative, doctors said. Zelensky took his own test at a private clinic, after refusing Poroshenko’s offer to take them together.
“I had my blood drawn, they drained me of all my blood. There’s a lot of it, my young blood,” the comedian told reporters, in an apparent joke at his challenger’s age.
The incident ensured the race between the two candidates descended further into a media spectacle, which will only continue when the two face off in a debate inside Kiev’s 70,000-seat stadium – the nation’s largest arena, which was renovated for the Euro 2012 soccer tournament.
The event – in a stadium where Madonna, Shakira and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have performed in recent years – reflects the huge domestic interest in the race.
Ahead of the showpiece, Zelensky released a slickly produced video shot inside the stadium.
The comedian made his name starring in “Servant of the People” – a Ukrainian television series now carried on Netflix – as a down-and-out schoolteacher who unexpectedly becomes President of Ukraine.
But life imitated art as the star leapt into the lead in opinion polls, despite his campaign initially being dismissed as a joke. He ultimately dominated the first round of voting in March, picking up 30% of votes cast compared to Poroshenko’s 16%.
But the surreal race comes at a serious time for Ukraine, which has spent five years locked in a proxy war with Russia.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel will meet Poroshenko next week, her office has confirmed.