KIEV: An excited crowd reached out to touch Ukrainian boxing star Vitali Klitschko as he went on the campaign trail for his corruption-busting party ahead of October 28 parliamentary polls.
"We have declared a battle for Ukraine and we will win," said the giant world heavyweight champion and opposition leader, who stands two metres (six foot, seven-and-a-half inches) tall, to applause from supporters in a Kiev hall.
His party UDAR, "Punch" in Ukrainian, is running second in the latest opinion polls to President Viktor Yanukovych's ruling party, and is backed by around 16 percent of voters.
That puts him almost head-to-head with the main opposition alliance in an impressive showing for a party that until recently had campaigned actively only in Kiev.
Analysts put that down to Ukrainians' general disillusionment with both the ruling powers and the opposition alliance that notably includes the party of jailed ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
The World Boxing Council heavyweight champion, 41, has spent months travelling up and down the country to meet voters, in the hopes of winning around 70 out of the 450 seats in parliament.
Campaigning "isn't easy, but I'm not in the habit of feeling sorry for myself," he told AFP in an interview.
"My methods in politics are the same as in sport: teamwork and confidence in yourself. And they work," he said.
Dressed casually in jeans, shirt and a well-cut sports jacket, Klitschko stepped out of a black minibus and bounded up the steps to the stage.
"Why am I doing this if politics (in Ukraine) is such a dirty business?" he asked the cheering crowd.
He then answered his own question, proclaiming his intention "to enter the world of politics to change it."
He promised voters to battle corruption and work towards "European living standards" in the ex-Soviet country where the average monthly salary is just over $380.
The boxer stressed that despite his star status, he is just one of the millions of Ukrainians who has been forced to leave the economically struggling country to work abroad.
"I am one of many, of six million Ukrainians, who cannot realise their potential and go abroad to earn money," he told AFP.
"That's why I am in politics, to change this situation, so that every Ukrainian can find a decent job and wage, and doesn't seek a better future abroad."
"The only one who earned his millions honestly""I don't need any money, an important post or parliamentary immunity," said the millionaire, who along with his brother Vladimir, also a boxing champion, owns sports marketing agencies based in Germany and the United States.
That assurance seems to have struck a chord with many. "He is the only one in Ukraine who earned his millions honestly," said accountant Alla, 45, who had come to the rally.
"I've come here not to win your votes, but to win your hearts," said the boxer before stepping down from the stage to shake hands and give out photographs of himself.
Some Ukrainian media have aired suspicions that Klitschko is secretly in league with Yanukovych rather than being a genuine opposition force, accusations that the boxer hotly rejects.
"I have never sold myself and I never will sell myself," he insisted recently.
Klitschko has complained that on the contrary, his party is being persecuted by the authorities, citing what he called "baseless judicial probes" into its candidates.
He says that he funds "more than half" of the campaign expenses out of his own pocket, estimating the total cost at around 100 million hryvnia ($12.24 million).
Ukraine's volatile parliament is notorious for debates that descend into fisticuffs between lawmakers, and Klitschko said jokingly that he hoped he would "never need to use his sports skills outside the ring.
"But if the interests of the country are at stake, I will defend them using any means," he vowed. -AFP
Boxer Klitschko brings star power to Ukraine vote - Story | The Star Online