Ukrainian voters hope for knockout punch (The Financial Times)

18.10.2012 11:54

By Roman Olearchyk in Cherkassy

Ukrainians have for years cheered on the reigning world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko as he conquered his opponents in the ring. Now millions of voters want to see the boxer deliver a political knockout to their president, Viktor Yanukovich.
They may get their chance next week. Mr Klitschko’s party is enjoying a surge in popularity ahead of parliamentary elections on October 28.

“His first punch as a politician should be against Yanukovich and his Regions party,” said a smiling Natalia Tomenko of Cherkassy, a provincial capital in central Ukraine.
Looking on as Mr Klitschko rallied more than a thousand voters in the town’s central square, the 20-year-old student, a first-time voter, said other politicians “had their chance in power, enriched themselves but did nothing for average people”.

Speaking in broken sound bites, Mr Klitschko said it was time to knock out corruption, cronyism, autocracy and kleptocracy, telling his mainly disillusioned, impoverished voters that hope had to be kept alive.

The speech in Cherkassy this week was part of a campaign tour through rural regions where Mr Klitshcko says his ancestors were once Cossack warriors. His Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform party is better known by its acronym, UDAR, which means punch in Ukrainian.
“I am not entering politics to make money, I don’t need money,” Mr Klitschko told the crowd, lashing out at billionaire oligarchs and bureaucrats who abuse power for personal gain.
Polls show support for UDAR has doubled since the spring to 16 per cent, threatening to eclipse the party of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, and creeping up on the 23 per cent held by Mr Yanukovich’s Regions party.

Mr Klitschko has twice unsuccessfully bid to be mayor of Kiev, Ukraine’s capital. But his leap on to the national stage has injected a fresh jolt of energy and hope for voters in this country of 45m people that seeks closer relations with Europe but feels the strong pull eastward by Russia.
The opposition is feeling the void left by last year’s jailing of Ms Tymoshenko, an ex-prime minister and leader of the pro-democracy Orange Revolution eight years ago. Western leaders have condemned her seven-year jail sentence as politically motivated, while the EU has put a landmark free trade agreement on hold until Ukraine demonstrates a stronger commitment to democracy.

Mr Klitschko says he would support legislation to free Ms Tymoshenko, who is “no doubt a political prisoner”. But his success is partially thanks to the absence of her charismatic campaigning. UDAR has made big gains in Ukrainian-speaking western and central Ukraine, Ms Tymoshenko’s heartland. But polls show Mr Klitschko also doing well in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, where Mr Yanukovich draws much of his support.
Should the opposition win this election, Mr Klitschko said UDAR would unite with Ms Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party to steer Ukraine back towards EU integration, democracy, rule of law and open politics.

In a country where politicians race down highways in luxury vehicles guarded by police escorts, Mr Klitschko is campaigning from a Volkswagen minivan. Rare for Ukrainian politicians, he takes questions – sometimes tough – from voters at rallies. This week he was criticised by villagers, for example, for building a party out of untested new faces and “discredited” bureaucrats.

“To some extent he is an unknown quantity,” says Mychailo Wynnyckyj, a social sciences professor at Kyiv Mohyla Academy. “But Ukraine needs new political faces and Klitschko’s party is bringing many in.”

Positioning UDAR as centre-moderate, Mr Klitschko talked of reforms that would lift the middle class and small businesses. “This is a rich country with lots of natural resources,” he tells the Financial Times, but it is all in the hands of a few “oligarchs” and the “family” – Mr Yanukovich’s inner circle.

The untainted superhero status of UDAR’s leader has struck a chord following years of political infighting and economic pain.

“He’s not the best public speaker, but is honest and clearly wants to change the country for the better,” said Halyna Doinova, a villager who struggles to survive on a $200 monthly pension. Having voted for Tymoshenko in the past, Ms Doinova now pins her hopes on the boxer. “He is younger, stronger, he can give our children a future,” she says.

Ukraine’s authorities have repeatedly pledged to hold a free and fair poll. Prime minister Mykola Azarov highlighted the installation of webcams in all 34,000 polling stations.
But cynicism is sky high with many voters. The pre-election atmosphere is fearful; many voters in rural Cherkassy region refused to speak to this newspaper, fearing that authorities would punish them or their relatives.

Holding up his three-year-old son in the crowds of Klitschko supporters, Pavlo Zelenko, an unemployed 30-year-old, said: “I will vote for Klitschko’s party to see what he does. There is not a lot of hope left.”

A recent poll gives Mr Klitschko the highest level of voter trust at 42 per cent, compared with 32 per cent for Mr Yanukovich. Political analysts are already talking about a 2015 Klitschko-Yanukovich showdown for the presidency, although the boxer says it’s too early to discuss.
But if he leads the opposition into victory this autumn, Mr Klitschko would at the very least shake up Ukrainian politics, much like Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili did this month in Georgia, another former Soviet republic.

“I don’t know how many rounds it will take, but I will fight to the finish,” Mr Klitschko said. “And in the end, when we win, it will be a knockout.”

 

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