PARIS (Reuters) - Ukraine’s leader on Friday said he was confident of turning the tables on his inexperienced opponent in the second round of the presidential election, saying voters would choose a substantive program over his challenger’s dangerous populism.
President Petro Poroshenko has been fighting for his political survival against Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a comedian with no prior political experience, who has a commanding poll lead as the two go into a run-off on April 21.
Vowing to take Ukraine into the European Union if he wins, Poroshenko has sought to paint Zelenskiy as a buffoonish lightweight whose victory would push Ukraine back into Russia’s orbit.
Poroshenko and Zelenskiy are due to hold a policy debate next Friday, where Poroshenko believes he can expose his opponent’s campaign as an “empty package”.
“There is a rising demand for my opponent just (to) put (his) card(s) on the table,” he told Reuters in an interview on board his plane between whistle-stop visits to meet leaders in Berlin and Paris. “I’m absolutely confident that my program is better, my support is strong.”
A 53-year-old confectionary magnate, Poroshenko took office in 2014 after the Maidan street protests forced his Kremlin-backed predecessor to flee into exile and after Russia annexed Crimea.
As president, he secured visa-free travel for Ukrainians to the EU, ramped up spending for the military fighting Kremlin-backed rebels, helped establish a new independent Orthodox church and successfully lobbied Western countries to keep sanctions on Moscow in place.
But his popularity has fallen sharply amid widespread voter disillusion with Ukraine’s political class. Critics say he has moved too slowly on implementing reforms and fighting corruption.
Poroshenko has struck a contrite tone since the first round of the election, apologizing for mistakes and firing some of the people he appointed to high office.
On Thursday he announced the launch of a special court to try corruption cases, part of a flurry of activity aimed at shoring up his reform credentials ahead of the run-off next week.
Speaking to Reuters on Friday, Poroshenko stressed that his achievements, from strengthening the army to passing healthcare reforms, should not be overlooked.
“It’s difficult to find any sphere where reforms have not been launched. Definitely if you launch reform in such a big number of spheres, you make a mistake,” he said.
Poroshenko has also been an energetic campaigner for Ukrainian integration into the EU and NATO.
He has had more than a dozen meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but Friday’s meeting could be their last with Poroshenko in office, if a survey by Ukrainian pollster Reiting is anything to go by. Figures released on Thursday showed him at 24 percent compared with Zelenskiy’s 61 percent.
On Friday, Merkel and Poroshenko discussed security in war-torn east Ukraine. Germany promised an additional 85 million euros ($96 million) for the construction of homes for Ukrainians displaced inside the country by the war, Poroshenko announced on Twitter on Friday.
Poroshenko also shared a photograph with French President Emmanuel Macron, whom he met in Paris later that day.
But not to be outdone, Zelenskiy traveled to Paris to meet Macron a few hours ahead of him.
Poroshenko and Zelenskiy have traded insults in public statements, TV show appearances and tit-for-tat viral social media videos since the first round of the election on March 31.
The show of rivalry culminated in them taking televised blood tests for alcohol and drug addiction.
Poroshenko has painted Zelenskiy as a puppet of a powerful oligarch on whose channel Zelenskiy airs his comedy shows. Zelenskiy in turn has hinted at his opponent’s corruption.
But on Friday Poroshenko said that if Zelenskiy had any proof of his wrongdoing, he should go through the legal system.
“If you have anything, you should go not to the TV show, but exactly to the law enforcement agency. While they don’t have anything, this is just blah, blah, blah,” he said, gesturing with his fingers.
If he wins a second term, Poroshenko said he would push ahead with measures to tackle corruption. That includes introducing a new law to criminalize officials illegally enriching themselves. He also promised an overhaul of law enforcement agencies.
Poroshenko also wants to launch Ukraine’s application for EU membership as early as 2023.
One day, he said, he would like to fight in another election: European parliamentary elections once Ukraine is an EU state.
“This is my dream,” Poroshenko said.
Writing by Matthias Williams and Polina Ivanova; Editing by Hugh Lawson