KIEV (Reuters) - Heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko is heading for a place in Ukraine’s raucous parliament and he says he is squaring up for “a fight without rules” against President Viktor Yanukovich’s ruling Party of the Regions.
With less than three weeks left to an election for a new parliament, the Western-style liberal party of the two-meter-tall Klitschko has rocketed up the ratings.
With opinion polls for the October 28 election showing his UDAR (Punch) party lying second on 16 percent support, the 41-year-old has cloaked his massive frame in the mantle of opposition leader left by the jailed Yulia Tymoshenko.
His surge in support, if sustained, could translate into 60-70 seats in parliament for his party - handing Klitschko a powerful ‘king-maker’ role in the 450-seat assembly.
And commentators are already seeing Klitschko - projecting an honest ‘big-man’ image that sells well in the former Soviet republic - as potential contender to rival Yanukovich for the presidency.
“If you compare him with other leaders of the opposition, Klitschko wins out: he is new, he fulfills all the requirements of the Ukrainian hero - big, handsome, manly,” said Mikhailo Pogrebinsky, director of the Kiev centre of political research.
But in an interview with Reuters in his Kiev office, Klitschko dodges a question on whether he sees himself as a possible successor to Yanukovich, now half-way through his five-year term.
“I have not asked myself that question.”
Klitschko, almost two decades in the fight-game, made his money fairly, most of it outside Ukraine and - quite literally - with his own hands.
With this background he is an attractive alternative to people angry, but powerless, in the face of cronyism and corruption, the wealth gap and the constant sniping between the ruling party and the traditional opposition.
But big-hitter though Klitschko is, he faces a bruising challenge to survive in the arena of Ukrainian politics where most punches are below the belt.
He has, for instance, been criticized for bringing into his team some old faces from the opposition, some of whom are politically tainted in the eyes of the electorate. They include a former finance minister and former state security chief.
If Klitschko does enter parliament at the head of 40 or more deputies, he will have to ride hard on his team to stop any immediate defections - a common practice in Ukraine where deputies are often bribed into switching sides.
The case of Viktor Yushchenko, the Orange Revolution leader who became president in 2005 and then lost support by chaotic policies, holds a lesson in the nature of Ukrainian politics.
“Klitschko is being well received now as a leader. But he should recall the sad experience of Yushchenko,” said Volodymyr Fesenko of the Penta think-tank.
“There is the possibility that his ratings can drop before the election. The main thing for him is not to make any abrupt or poorly thought-out statements,” added Fesenko.
An absence of experience counts heavily against him, some say. “He is not ready for high political roles...yet he is effectively becoming pretender for the No. 2 post (prime minister) in the country,” said Pogrebinsky.
The reigning WBC heavyweight champion was known, in the ring, for keeping his opponents at bay with his long reach.
But on the campaign trail, he mingles easily, diving into crowds to sign autographs and sharing jokes with well-wishers.
His aims are to fight corruption and end poverty in the sprawling country of 46 million, he tells people.
His informal manner - he dresses casually with an open-neck shirt - brings a refreshing change for an electorate used to the stuffier style of traditional besuited politicians.
He appeals particularly to the young under 30s.
In the interview, he rules out joining any parliamentary coalition with the pro-business Regions which is still expected to hang on to its majority in the new chamber. They represent the interests of the “financial-industrial” elite, he says.
“Those in power today say they are fighting corruption, but their fight against corruption resembles a bee fighting honey,” he says sarcastically.
He says he will team up with the United Opposition, which includes Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party to tackle the Regions.
The alarming reality for the opposition is that Klitschko also appeals to people disappointed with the old “Orange” order.
The “Orange” leaders - Yushchenko and Tymoshenko - took power in 2005 after street protests against sleaze. But they then failed to deliver on their promises and, after years of bitter fighting among themselves, saw power slip from their hands when Yanukovich was elected in February 2010.
Though Klitschko says he will team up with the United Opposition, which includes Batkivshchyna, to take on the Regions, he is bloodying their nose too.
The ratings of the United Opposition are dropping under the impact of the Klitschko phenomenon while the Regions’ ratings are staying stable at around the 23 percent mark.
In Ukrainian politics, personalities and image count for more than programs and the image of Arseny Yatseniuk, a bespectacled, balding intellectual who heads the United Opposition, stands in stark contrast with that of Klitschko.
“Yatseniuk, unlike Klitschko, is perceived as a ”Mummy’s boy“, someone who talks a lot but says nothing, a populist,” said Pogrebinsky.
The Regions and its allies are hoping for an outcome which will cement Yanukovich’s leadership and leave him poised to secure a second term in 2015.
But his government has suffered because of unpopular tax and pension reforms and for failing to tackle widespread corruption that deters foreign investment that the country badly needs.
Though Yanukovich’s leadership says it is committed to taking Ukraine into mainstream Europe, relations with the EU have been stopped in their tracks by the jailing of Tymoshenko which the West says smacks of political vengeance.
Tymoshenko was jailed for seven years last year on charges of abusing her office when she was prime minister.
With indifferent relations also with Russia, Ukraine is now more isolated in Europe than it has been for several years.
“The electors see in Klitschko the new opposition. Klitschko is perceived as the new symbol of hope,” said Fesenko. “The voters need a ray of hope and for opposition-inclined voters Klitschko is the bright spot.”
His popularity as an globally acclaimed sportsman makes it hard for opponents to criticize or deride him in public.
Klitschko, who trained in Germany for much of his boxing career, won 41 of his 45 victories on knockouts and is known as Dr. Ironfist because he holds a doctorate in sports science.
On shelves behind him stand the works of the French writers Flaubert and Balzac, the full works of Lenin, Churchill’s “Defense of Empire” and a book of boxing photographs bearing the face of former world champion Muhammad Ali on the cover.
There are no pictures of contemporary Ukrainian leaders - only family snapshots: his wife, a former fashion model, and his boxing brother Vladimir who is current WBA heavyweight champion.
Klitschko, who is preparing to hang up his gloves at the end of his professional boxing career, says the political fight ahead of him will be dirtier than any fight he has had in the ring. “This is a fight without rules,” he says flatly.
“The experience of previous campaigns tells us that in all probability there will be (electoral) fraudulence. With great regret, we are expecting some dirty play,” he said.
He says he is only on acquaintance terms with Yanukovich. But the daily online newspaper Ukrainska Pravda quoted him last week as saying that Yanukovich had once tried to win his support by using gangster language to establish common ground.
Of Tymoshenko? “She should be freed. You can not talk of a path to Europe and of democratic principles when a representative of the opposition is in jail.”
Of homosexuality and an anti-gay bill which passed its first reading in parliament? “One of the main components of democratic society is the ability to choose ... we must be tolerant towards people who have completely different views for whatever reason.”
Klitschko has never been in parliament and failed in two attempts to become mayor of Kiev, Ukraine’s capital city - a factor which might have led many of his political opponents to underestimate his campaign.
Analysts say he has yet to face the worst in Ukrainian politics which involves dirty tricks, personal mud-slinging and financial back-handers being paid out to compromise candidates.
Up to now, the only potentially compromising piece of material against him is a photograph on the Internet which shows him arm in arm with a known gangster who was killed in 2005. Klitschko dismisses the importance of this, saying the person was only one of numerous people with whom he has been photographed over the years.
In two decades in the ring, he was known not only for his high knock-out rate, but also his patience in probing weaknesses in his opponent’s defenses before landing the killer punch.
He will have to show much the same cold-blooded stealth in the swamp of the Ukrainian parliament if he has aspirations of going for the presidency in 2015.
“The main risks for him are after the election is over. He will have two years of fighting in parliament ahead of him against the majority in power and also against parts of the opposition,” said Fesenko. “It will be like going 12 rounds where everything is decided in the final round.”
Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk; Writing By Richard Balmforth; editing by Ralph Boulton