Ukraine election: Vitali Klitschko a serious challenger

Vitali Klitschko

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Vitali Klitschko, a world famous Ukrainian sporting hero, is making a very good fist of his attempt at politics.

Udar, the political party led by the reigning world heavyweight champion boxer, has surprised many observers by catapulting to second place in opinion polls before Ukraine's parliamentary election on 28 October.

This is not Klitschko's first election: He ran twice, unsuccessfully, for mayor of Kiev.

But this election battle has a different vibe altogether. Udar, which means "punch" in Ukrainian (and stands for Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms) is regularly landing its blows.

Klitschko supporters at a rally in Lubny Klitschko has been a national celebrity for many years and drew the crowds at a rally in Lubny

At a recent rally in the small central Ukrainian city of Lubny, Klitschko's growing popularity was unmistakable.

Disciplined

Many were drawn simply to see him up close and possibly get an autograph from the WBC heavyweight champion, a man nicknamed Dr Ironfist, who is worshipped by Ukrainian sports fans.

But others said they came because they see Udar as an alternative to the cronyism and politics-as-usual of Ukraine's mainstream parties, both in the government and opposition. They consider Klitschko's political inexperience a plus - easier to believe him when he says that he is a new force that will pulverise Ukraine's pervasive and suffocating corruption.

All of which is buttressed by Klitschko's reputation as a punishing and disciplined fighter.

Start Quote

I will keep my reputation and my name. Believe me”

End Quote Vitali Klitschko World heavyweight boxing champion and UDAR leader

"I'm voting for Klitschko, because he's a person of iron will and strong character - just the kind of person we need," said Maria, a pensioner.

When Klitschko arrived, the crowd of a few hundred surged forward, and then settled back into rapt, respectful attention.

Corrosive politics

Klitschko is vast - a huge presence, more than 2m (6ft 7in) tall, with hands like watermelons.

He is not the most comfortable of orators, and his stump speech lacked the oomph of a more seasoned politician. But his massive grassroots campaign, which began nearly a year ago and sometimes includes up to five rallies a day, has undoubtedly sharpened his presentation.

"I have never been bought, and no-one has ever been embarrassed because of me in my sports career, and no-one will be embarrassed because of me as politician," Klitschko said to cheers. "I give you my word, and I will keep my reputation and my name. Believe me."

The speech however was light on specifics. Klitschko, of course, is not the first politician to trade mostly on hope.

He says that he will enforce the rule of law, and those politicians caught enriching themselves will be sent to jail. Ukraine will become a full member of Europe, including part of European security structures. He will bring a completely new team of ministers and aides, young and untainted by Ukraine's corrosive political culture.

Vitali Klitschko fights Herbie Hide in the WBO world heavyweight championship in London in 1999 Vitali Klitschko beat Herbie Hide to win the WBO world heavyweight championship in London in 1999

How he plans to do all this is somewhat vague. But this strategy of being all things to all people seems to working exceedingly well. According to the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, Klitschko's party is polling at 16% - up from 9.6% two months ago.

These numbers are behind President Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions (23%), and just in front of Ukraine's United Opposition (15%), a collection of eight parties led by jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko's Fatherland party.

'Afraid'

How many deputies this would constitute in Ukraine's 450-seat parliament is still not clear however. Half of parliament is chosen proportionally from party lists, though only those parties that cross a 5% threshold are eligible. The other half is elected through first-past-the-post single mandate districts.

But if Udar and the United Opposition join forces in parliament, as they now are speaking of doing, they might control enough seats to form a majority. And in any case, Klitschko is now well-positioned to assume the leadership of the anti-government forces.

And what of his supporters' expectations, which may be too high and could face crushing disappointment when Klitschko is forced, as part of the expected political to-and-fro, to compromise with his opponents?

"I'm afraid to disappoint people, but this gives me the additional motivation to work even harder," he says.

"We have to make compromises, but under no circumstances should we compromise our consciences."

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