The towering Vitali Klitschko is tops in the boxing ring, dominating the heavyweight class along with his younger brother Wladimir.
But can the 40-year-old Klitschko become Ukraine’s political champion as well, rescuing the nation from what he and most everyone else – except those in President Viktor Yanukovych’s administration – see as a slide into authoritarianism?
Klitschko is clearly unhappy – as are most Ukrainians – with the current political leaders. He offers a moral voice that the nation is lacking – and a call to action.
“When the government imprisons members of the opposition, the police break up peaceful demonstrations and courts forbid gatherings, it’s hard to claim that there is respect for human rights,” Klitschko wrote last fall in a widely published opinion piece. (Kyiv Post, Nov. 24, 2011. "My new fight is to stop Ukraine from 'sliding into tyranny.') “When reporters are told what questions to ask officials and what answers can be published, it’s hard to claim that there is free speech. When court decisions can be bought, the rule of law has no meaning. These relics of autocracy can be found in the present government. But history shows that today’s rulers must change or be swept from power.”
The Kyiv city council member, who has a Ph.D. in sports science, has big advantages. He is popular, attractive and trusted. He commands international respect. He also has one of the lowest disapproval rankings in polls and consistently has one of the best ratings among politicians, according to recent nationwide polls.
Despite being dismissed by some as an intellectual lightweight, the older Klitschko’s attractiveness will likely help his Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform party (the acronym of which, UDAR, stands for punch, something that the boxer known as Dr. Ironfist does well).
At this stage, Klitschko’s UDAR is expected to cross the 5 percent threshold needed to gain representation in the Verkhovna Rada following the Oct. 31 parliamentary elections. If it happens, it would be through the force of Klitschko’s personality as he – like many other political party leaders in this nation – has not assembled a formidable team around him.
Success in the parliamentary elections may just be a warm-up for the 2015 presidential vote or another bid to become Kyiv mayor, a race that ended in defeat for Klitschko in 2008. The mayoral election may take place later this year.
Klitschko has, nonetheless, established his corruption-fighting credentials in local government through his minority city council faction that has vigorously attacked shady land deals.
With Yanukovych’s ruling Party of Regions increasingly unpopular and opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko in prison, Klitschko’s political moment may near. Another contender for opposition champion is ex-foreign minister and ex-parliamentary speaker Arseniy Yatseniuk, who had a 45.9 percent disapproval ranking according to a recent Razumkov Center ranking – 2 percentage points higher than Klitschko’s.
“This means Klitschko has certain potential with voters. His name doesn’t invoke as much negative reactions with voters, and it signifies that voters take a more tolerant stance towards him,” said Mykhailo Mishchenko, an analyst at the Razumkov Center.
While Klitschko isn’t yet considered one of the main contenders for president in 2015, some political consultants think he can win.
“Of course people know me first as a boxer,” Klitschko recently told the Financial Times.
“Is there a school that produces politicians?” he asked rhetorically. “Anyone who has the honest desire to do good for their people and country can and should be a politician.”
It is that earnestness and self-made wealth that separate Klitschko from the same old faces that have dominated Ukraine’s cutthroat politics. As a lot, the entrenched political elite are associated with greed, corruption and kleptocracy.
“Klitschko’s name isn’t associated with politics. It’s associated with leadership, with honesty,” said Canadian Mychailo Wynnyckyj, a social sciences professor at Kyiv Mohyla Academy. “At first glance, he projects certain moral qualities that people like, and there’s no question how he made his money – with a lot of hard-fought bruises (in the boxing ring).”
In the Financial Times interview, Klitschko said that the key quality for a politician is “morality.” It’s a trait that resonates with voters.
Wynnyckyj said Klitschko has an excellent chance of appealing to disenchanted voters fed up with politicians on both sides of the political aisle: Yanukovych’s Party of Regions and those associated with the 2004 Orange Revolution, which blocked Yanukovych from winning the presidency in a fraud-marred vote.
Besides a clean image at home, Klitschko already has an exceptional international standing together with his 35-year-old brother Wladimir. They’re both multilingual and are well-known in Europe, especially in Germany, where the elder Klitschko trains and has fought most of his bouts.
“Everyone in Europe and in Ukraine is fed up with the older politicians in Ukraine. Klitschko, in contrast, has a high profile in Ukraine and internationally, and is seen as someone who could become a future political leader,” said Andreas Umland, a German political science scholar who teaches in Ukraine.
Still, political consultants say that while Klitschko is being pressured into skipping a repeat bid for the Kyiv mayor’s seat, he is taking it slow and not rushing into the presidential race just yet.
His UDAR party already has some 400 seats in local governments and municipalities won in October 2010. Various polls show UDAR having good chances of passing the 5 percent threshold in the October parliamentary elections.
But the question is: Can a heavyweight boxer contend for the presidency in a country of 46 million people where politics would even confuse Machiavelli?
“Klitschko certainly has potential, but keep in mind he hasn’t dueled with political opponents yet, he hasn’t engaged in open warfare against anyone,” said Yevhen Kopatko, director of Research & Branding, a prominent pollster.
Kopatko told the Kyiv Post that it’s still too early to assess Klitschko’s chances for the presidency and cautiously observed that his positive net approval rating is a “deferred expectation.”
Nevertheless, Ukraine is “up for a complete rotation of the elites that will likely be swept away,” said Wynnyckyj, referring to public discontent with contemporary Ukrainian politics.