Ukraine's sports heroes run wide of political mark

by Dmitry Zaks, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Oct 30 2012 03:00 PM | Updated as of Oct 30 2012 11:04 PM

KIEV - Boxing champ Vitali Klitschko failed to punch above his weight and football super-striker Andriy Shevchenko was badly off target in both Ukrainian heroes' first stabs at national politics.

Early results from Sunday's parliamentary ballot showed the big boxer known as "Dr Ironfist" and his UDAR (Punch) party finishing in fourth place with a disappointing 13 percent of the vote -- about five points below initial projections.

The Ukraine Forward! movement involving AC Milan's retired legend "Sheva" fared even worse by failing to make it into parliament outright and collecting just a few percent of the vote.

The ruling party of President Vladimir Yanukovych and the well-established opposition alliance of the jailed ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko appeared set to finish one-two to prove once again that experience and resources matter in Ukraine's bruising political world.

"We must still analyse everything: why we could have won more votes but failed," a subdued Klitschko said as the first votes were being counted on Sunday night.

But analysts appeared to have already determined that Shevchenko for one was a political non-starter who had better start thinking of a different career path after football.

"This was a bad project that was doomed from the start," Mykhailo Pogrebynsky of the Kiev institute of political research said of Shevchenko's political aspirations.

"I hope that he decides not to pursue this and reasonably takes on a different career."

It is hard to say which man is the biggest hero in a nation with a proud sports tradition stretching back to Soviet times.

Both were almost simultaneously compelled to enter the political fray this summer amid a sudden swell of trust from the corruption-stained nation in its stars' moral impregnability.

Klitschko quickly became effective at driving home a populist message of breaking the state's ties to big business and making sure that Ukrainains' wages reached levels enjoyed by their partners in the eastern EU states.

"How come the Czechs could do it and the Poles could do it and even the Georgians could do it -- and the Ukrainians cannot," Klitschko asked in one of his favourite stump speeches about long-overdue reforms.

"I am one of the six million Ukrainians who were forced to leave the country to earn a decent wage," he said in another.

Both messages received warm applause from his listeners that invariably transformed into chants for Klitschko to run for president in early 2015 -- when Yanukovych's controversial first term expires.

He told a group of reporters on Monday that any talk of who might stand for president at this stage was mere "speculation".

But analysts have been much more cautious about Klitschko's long-term prospects than his most devout fans -- many of them elderly women who especially appear taken by the 41-year-old's vigour and self-confidence.

One group of them effectively ganged up on Klitschko during one highly rated pre-election political talk show during which the boxer engaged in an informal debate with his political rivals and media personalities.

Several flatly reminded Klitschko of the fate that befell the once-popular 2004 pro-Western Orange Revolution leaders -- most of them with negligible approval ratings just months after seizing power amid jubilant scenes.

"Where is the guarantee that you will not do just as Yushchenko and bury all the people's hopes?" analyst Andriy Okara asked Klitschko on national television.

Revolution co-leader and subsequent one-term president Viktor Yushchenko rode a tide of national optimism to the top state post in 2005 before seeing his approval rating plummet within months of assuming office.

"Our voters lose their trust in their favourite politicians once they see them elected to position of power," said Volodymyr Fesenko of the Penta Centre for Political Studies.

"But when a person is fighting in the opposition corner, much depends on how he acts. If he shows a good fight and demonstrates some political principles, people are ready to trust him," said Fesenko.

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