KIEV (Reuters) - Ukrainian heavyweight boxer and opposition politician Vitaly Klitschko said on Thursday he would run for president in 2015 and angrily rejected legislation that could disqualify his candidacy because of years he spent training in Germany.
Klitschko, 42, the reigning WBC heavyweight champion, made his declaration to parliament after its deputies - predominantly from the ruling Party of Regions and its allies - amended a law on tax legislation in a way that could be used to prevent him from running for the presidency.
He is the first declared contender against incumbent Viktor Yanukovich, who is widely expected to seek a second term despite a slump in popularity because of Ukraine’s faltering economy.
Banging the rostrum with his hand to emphasize his point, the two-metre-(6 ft 7 in)-tall Klitschko said: ”Everything that has taken place in parliament today with texts of laws, directly backed by ruling party deputies, does not intimidate me and will not stop me.
“To head off all this conjecture and attempts to eliminate me as a possible candidate, I want to declare this: I will run for president.”
He shapes up as the strongest challenger to Yanukovich in 2015 in the absence of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is serving a seven-year jail sentence for abuse of office and whose release Western powers are seeking.
Klitschko has condemned widespread corruption in Ukrainian society which he says is fostered by the leadership and speaks up for a fairer, more democratic society along European lines.
But his popularity mainly derives from his gut appeal as a big-hitting sportsman, untainted by domestic politics, and his skills as a political manager are untested.
The last opinion polls, though, put Klitschko’s ratings on a level with Yanukovich, whose popularity has suffered because of declining living standards and stagnant economic growth.
Klitschko launched his political career in 2005 by running - unsuccessfully - for mayor of the Ukrainian capital Kiev and setting up a pro-Western liberal party known by its abbreviated name UDAR, which means “punch” in Ukrainian.
UDAR won 42 seats in the 450-seat parliament in last year’s election, making it one of the leading opposition parties.
A former amateur kickboxer, Klitschko in the ring is known for his devastating punches and holds one of the highest knockout records in heavyweight boxing history. His punching power and the fact he has a PhD have given him the nickname of Dr Ironfist.
His outburst in parliament touched on an amendment to the national tax code passed earlier which ruled that a person who had paid taxes abroad in recent years cannot claim residency in Ukraine and is thus disqualified from holding high office.
According to electoral law, a candidate for president has to have been a resident in Ukraine for the 10 preceding years. Klitschko, who trained for several years in Germany, said the tax amendment was “directed personally at me”.
“Today with these amendments to the tax code, the authorities are trying to eliminate all their political competitors”.
If Klitschko were to be ruled out of the race, other likely candidates would be former economy minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, who heads Tymoshenko’s faction in parliament, and Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the far-right nationalist party Svoboda.
Editing by Mark Heinrich