Vitali Klitschko launches bid for Ukraine presidency

By bne IntelliNews October 25, 2013

bne -

Ukrainian opposition leader Vitali Klitschko officially launched his bid for Ukraine's presidency on October 24.

The world boxing champion made the announcement during a parliamentary session that saw a new bill on residence - that could bar him from standing - introduced. "To put an end to all the speculation and the attempts to damage me as a possible candidate, I want to inform you that I will put myself forward for president," Klitschko said in a speech.

The election is due to be held in March 2015 and Klitschko is already running neck and neck with jailed former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko with about 20% in recent opinion polls. Incumbent Viktor Yanukovych is slightly ahead with 24%, but if the vote went to a second round, as has to happen if no candidate wins more than 50%, the polls currently say that either of the opposition leaders would then win.

At this point it's unclear if Tymoshenko will be eligible to stand, as she remains a convicted criminal and is currently serving a seven-year sentence for abuse of office. Yanukovych narrowly beat her in the last vote in 2010, but he has since run the country into the ground. Meanwhile, his "family" - a clique of business backers, friends and relations - have been busy helping themselves to the state's assets.

Klitschko is a relatively recent addition to the political scene. He set up the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR - which translates as "punch") in 2005 - a year after the Orange Revolution - and is a sitting member of parliament. His political profile has risen steadily since. He came second in the race for mayor of Kyiv in 2006, and has been building UDAR's profile. The party won 14% of the vote in last year's parliamentary elections, which earned it 40 seats from the 450 in the Verkhovna Rada. That placed the party third overall, behind the ruling Party of Regions and Tymoshenko's Batkivschyna.

The gloves come off

Now Klitschko is an official candidate the gloves are off. At the same Rada session in which Klitschko made his announcement, the Party of Regions introduced an amendment to the tax code that bars Ukrainian nationals who hold permanent resident status in another country from standing for president. Klitschko has resident status in Germany where he is a high profile celebrity, often appearing in adverts with his brother Vladimir (also a boxer) speaking fluent, if heavily accented, German.

Unsurprisingly, Klitschko slammed the bill, calling it a "nonsense and cynical fraud" designed to prevent him from running for office. "To all the dirty machinations that are going on today in parliament, with the bills backed by pro-government deputies, I want to say that it will not intimidate or stop me," he thundered to the house.

Yanukovych is clearly concerned, and preparing to hold onto to his job by hook or by crook. Earlier this year he suggested that the presidential race should be a simple "first past the post" race, nixing the need to pass the 50% threshold. In that case, Yanukovych could marshal his traditional supporters in Ukraine's Russophile eastern provinces and, together with a bit of gerrymandering and outright ballot stuffing, stand a good chance of remaining president.

However, under that scenario, there would a high chance of a second Orange Revolution, say analysts. On the whole Russia's recent experience suggests populations in eastern Europe seem willing to tolerate ballot stuffing that alters the result by up to 5%, but beyond this they will take to the streets.

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