The topic of the debate keeps appearing on the pages of the Ukrainian media. It all reminds some show now, because the opponents will meet at the Olympic National Sports Complex, and Poroshenko has already called Zelensky to get tested together. Read the experts’ opinions on why we need the debate, how it can affect the ratings of the politicians, what the voters will get from it and what topics the candidates should touch upon in the debate.

Is there a need for debate before the second round?

The issue of the appropriateness of the debate is not really debatable: in most cases, experts and the public are in favor of the debate. For example, political scientist Viktor Taran shares this opinion.

“Debate is necessary because due to it the society will get a chance to get answers to the question of how the candidates see further development of the country. In addition, it will provide an opportunity to understand the candidates’ positions in key areas of the international vector of the development of the country.”

Oleksii Buriachenko, political expert and the chairman of the board of the Regional Expert Legal Association of Influence, agrees with his colleague.

“According to the classic scenario of the election race, of course, it is needed. It has to be aired live and the candidates will be under the pressure of their direct political opponent. It is clear that the scenario of such debate will be developed in advance, and all the key questions will be known to the debaters. But, as international practice shows, very often everything goes wrong in the course of such debate. I am convinced, that in our case there will also be some shocking elements of the show.

At the same time, it is not clear whether it will take place at all, since this issue is turned into a show or a challenge by Zelensky’s team, and for Poroshenko, it is an opportunity to show his ‘systematic’ advantages to the whole country.”

Dmytro Sinchenko, the head of the public organization Association of Political Sciences, believes that debate is necessary both in the first and in the second rounds because their format requires candidates to prove the need to implement their proposals and programs.

“Yes, it is the programs, policies, ideas, and plans that should be discussed. Without making it personal and offensive, without empty talks and slogans. Only the format of the debate can allow this to be done because political advertising will not make it clear. In general, I believe that we need to ban pre-election political advertising on television, in the media and on advertising spaces. We only need mandatory debate.  Then the voter will receive the necessary information to decide whether to vote for the candidate or not. Then the candidates will have to answer difficult questions, explain how they are going to fulfill their promises, and whether it is possible to fulfill them at all.”

How can the debate affect the ratings of both candidates?

According to Viktor Taran, the refusal of one of the candidates to participate in the debate may lead to the most dramatic changes in the ratings.

“A candidate who refuses to participate in the debate will lose the undecided votes and the voters who voted on the principle of “whoever but the opponent” in the first place. Since there are a lot of such voters, non-participation in the debate may lead to a cardinal change of electoral support of both candidates.”

But Dmytro Sinchenko is convinced that the future (or probable) debate is extremely disadvantageous for one of the candidates, and, conversely, can be of a significant benefit for another one.

“For Zelensky the debate is disadvantageous. He runs a virtual campaign, thanks to which he was able to create an image of the candidate of hope. And he has different images in the eyes of each voter. Any word he says will destroy the image for some voters, which means he will lose votes. Therefore, Zelensky tries to avoid any public appearances, and especially debate.

For Poroshenko, the debate is beneficial, because he is a strong speaker and an experienced politician. He has a deeper knowledge of the management of the state, politics, and economy, so it will be difficult to “trap” him. A clear demonstration of Zelensky’s incompetence, or, even worse, the statements that Zelensky will have to make public, will alienate a part of the voters from him.”

Liliia Brudnytska expressed a similar opinion in the commentary for Opinion. The expert of the Center for Structural Political Science Choice is convinced that as a result of the debate Poroshenko may get a chance to win against the backdrop of disappointment in Volodymyr Zelensky.

“My opinion is different from the opinion of the vast majority of my friends – I think there is no need in the debate. Now, Volodymyr Zelensky is not so much a traditional presidential candidate as a myth about the presidency. But – paradox! – it is mythological of his identity as a contender for the mace that provides the maximum probability of success of his cadence. In the course of the debate, Zelensky’s electoral field will shrink, because he will have to specify something. Disappointment in Ze will be swift in such a development of events, even if he wins in a verbal fight.”

Oleksii Buriachenko assumes that for Poroshenko the debate is an opportunity to activate the voters of the “system” candidates (Hrytsenko, Smeshko, Vilkul and even Boiko) who were in power and are perceived by many as successful governors.

“Also, the team of Petro Poroshenko will try to activate those people (voters) who did not come to the elections, which is more than 30%. After all, they understand perfectly well that the candidate who can activate those who have not yet decided and mobilize his electorate will have a real chance to win.”

As for Zelensky, the expert believes that he may be supported by the voters of Tymoshenko, Boiko, and Hrytsenko. That is, some of the voters may not so much vote for the showman as against the incumbent president.

“I predict that debate will take place, but it will not significantly change the balance of political forces before the second round, because Poroshenko’s rhetoric is in a completely different plane if compared with the rhetoric of Zelensky. And here the question is not which one is better and which is worse – they are just completely different! As a result, Poroshenko’s electorate will be pleased with his performance, and Zelensky’s electorate, respectively – with his performance at this debate.”

But Dmytro Konyk, associate professor of the Kyiv Mohyla Academy and the candidate of sociological sciences, doubts that debate may change the opinions of Zelensky’s or Poroshenko’s voters. The main fight will be, according to the expert, for the votes of those whose candidates did not get into the second round.

“It seems to me that despite the fact that Poroshenko is undoubtedly a very experienced and strong speaker, his hope that debate will bring him a significant increase in votes can be justified only partially. First of all, preparing a candidate for debate is technically not very difficult (we should not forget that Zelensky is a talented actor). However, what is much more important, this electoral campaign has shown a fairly high polarization of our society. Do not forget that most of the other candidates ran for president with criticism of the power (and especially of Poroshenko), so their voters are already motivated to vote against the incumbent president.

In any case, the voters who voted for Poroshenko or for Zelensky in the first round are unlikely to change their opinion in the second round, which means that the main fight will be for the voters of other candidates. Therefore, in course of the debate, it is interesting for Poroshenko to raise the issues of security, international cooperation, reforms, and Zelensky should focus on the issues of combating corruption, judicial reform and better public control over the authorities.”

Andrii Prokopenko, political technologist and the head of the agency Prokopenko and Partners, is convinced that the debate will not affect the results of the second round.

“Debate at the stadium is a brilliant creative step, which noticeably refreshed the course of the predictable second round. The main thing is: a duel with Poroshenko solves the issue of the mobilization of Zelensky’s voters. The double advantage in votes could affect their turnout – why go to the elections if the result is known. Poroshenko’s aggressive style will clearly add adrenaline and interest to the debate. It is already clear that it will break all broadcast records.

Will the debate affect the election result? Fundamentally, no. Zelensky’s supporters are well aware that he has no experience in politics. And they think it’s a plus. They do not expect the ready-made recipes for solving the problems of Ukraine from him. They expect one thing from Zelensky – honest power.”

How can the debate be beneficial for voters?

Oleksii Buriachenko assured Opinion that due to debate, voters will be able to assess the professionalism of politicians and how real their promises can be considered. However, there will be some benefits for those who do not know much about politics.

“The candidates’ participation in the debate before the second round is certainly a plus for the voter. Such debate can make it possible to be convinced of candidates’ professionalism and their focus on the implementation of the election promises. And for the people who know little about politics, it is an opportunity to evaluate the candidates as a whole, from the hairstyle to the color of the tie and draw their own conclusions.”

However, the debate will be an opportunity for the citizens to get answers to key questions that may not have been voiced before. Viktor Taran is sure of it.

“The voters will be able to assess the candidates’ degree of readiness to rule the country in war. They will also be able to hear the answers to other questions that concern them. How do they see further relations with Russia and the EU? Which reforms are they planning to implement, etc.”

Dmytro Konyk is convinced that the debate will be an opportunity for the voters to learn more about Zelensky as one of the possible presidents. After all, despite the leadership in social surveys, according to experts, most of his electorate did not realize that the showman has a real chance of winning.

“He is a very popular personality, but different groups of voters add their own expectations to his image, which can be very different. Zelensky managed to win the first round without participating in TV talk shows, almost without holding press events and without giving interviews. Opponents argue that this was done because of his incompetence and fear of going into the direct debate with other candidates. Perhaps that is why Petro Poroshenko and his supporters are now promoting the topic of the debate.”

What should be the key topics in the debate?

According to Dmytro Sinchenko, the key issue for both candidates should be ending the war. After all, there are only two options: victory or surrender.

“The voter must understand which way this or that politician is going to move. Secondly, they should discuss the key areas of the country’s reforming: judicial reform, law enforcement reform, European integration, NATO membership, tax reform, decentralization, medical, educational reform, social policy… They must announce the names of those who will be offered for the key positions in the state, who will be accepted into the lists of their political forces in the parliamentary elections.”

The political scientist Viktor Taran believes that the focus of the discussion should be those topics that relate directly to the powers of the president of Ukraine.

“Three blocks of issues that are within the competence of the President should be discussed: international relations, safety block and vision of what should the country be like in 5 years, and how the president plans to ‘lead the country’ to achieve this goal.”

Oleksii Buriachenko gives a similar forecast for the possible debate.

“I predict that the topics of the debate will be directly related to the constitutional duties of the president of Ukraine and will relate to the issues of defense, foreign and domestic policy, personnel appointments and strategic vision of development and the way of the country as a whole.”

But Vitalii Zahainyi, social activist and the head of the electoral campaigns with 20 years of experience, believes that the main issues should be chosen… by the voters themselves.

“The topic of the debate should be formed on the basis of the national sociological study commissioned by the CEC and be open to voters and candidates in advance.”

Dmytro Konyk notes that, regardless of the topics, both candidates should answer the same questions as their competitor.

“I believe that the debate should take place between the candidates, not between their teams. It is also important that the candidates are asked the same questions during the debate to avoid accusations of partiality.”

Text by Dmytro Zhuravel

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