Ukraine boxer Klitschko drops out of presidential race
Boxer turned opposition leader Vitali Klitschko dropped out of Ukraine's snap presidential polls to help the candidacy of a charismatic tycoon who made a fortune selling chocolates and backs closer Western ties, AFP reports.
The towering sports star's decision leaves the crisis-hit nation of 46 million with two clear frontrunners in the May 25 vote -- business baron Petro Poroshenko and the highly divisive and corruption-stained opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.
The 42-year-old Klitschko conceded to fellow members of his aptly-named UDAR (Punch) party that he had slipped badly in public approval ratings in the tumultuous weeks following the February 22 ouster of pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych.
"We have to nominate a single candidate representing the democratic forces," Klitschko told an UDAR party congress.
"This has to be a candidate who enjoys the strongest public support. Today, this candidate in my opinion is Petro Poroshenko."
Klitschko added that he planned to run for mayor of Kiev in elections that will be held alongside the presidential polls.
The former heavyweight champion -- a proponent of closer European ties who was stripped of his title belt in December for spending too much time at the barricades instead of the boxing ring -- is a national hero who now leads the third-largest party in parliament.
Klitschko was viewed as the most potent political threat to Yanukovych at the height of the protests and enjoyed the support of more than 20 percent of potential voters in late December.
But a survey published by four respected Ukrainian research firms this week put him second in the presidential ratings with less than nine percent of the vote.
Poroshenko -- the only prominent Ukrainian tycoon to join protesters at central Kiev's battled-scarred Independence Square -- ranked first with the backing of almost a quarter of the respondents.
Some analysts believe that support for Klitschko subsided once Yanukovych left power as voters began to look for other candidates with similar pro-Western leanings but who had more experience in politics and administrative affairs.
- Chocolate baron -
Poroshenko is often referred to as the "chocolate baron" because of the huge popularity in Eastern Europe of his Roshen sweets brand.
Roshen ran into trouble in Russia as soon as Poroshenko started publicly backing a trade and political association agreement with the European Union that would have pulled Ukraine out of the Kremlin's orbit and closer into the Western fold.
Yanukovych sparked the protests against his rule by rejecting the deal in November. The new interim leaders in Kiev signed the political portion of the pact this month.
Moscow authorities banned Poroshenko's chocolates for alleged health violations and one of his Russian factories had to halt production on the same grounds.
But Poroshenko's empire stretches far beyond chocolates and includes ownership of Ukraine's Channel 5 television station -- an authoritative news source that takes a highly critical view of the Kremlin -- as well as automobile plants and a shipyard.
The 48-year-old is also an independent member of parliament who served as both foreign and economics minister and is known for supporting Ukraine's future membership in NATO.
"Poroshenko is a good speaker who developed a good reputation during the protest movement," said Kiev's Mogyla Academy political science professor Andreas Umland.
"Ukrainian voters are now looking for fresh faces," the analyst said.
- Iron lady -
This week's public opinion poll gave third place to Tymoshenko -- a fiery leader of the 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution whose steely demeanour and ruthless political style earned her the nickname of the "Iron Lady".
Tymoshenko was one of Ukraine's brightest political stars at the height of the 2004 protests who drew wide admiration among Western leaders and was openly abhorred by the Kremlin.
But she has more recently won notoriety for being branded as a trusted partner by Russian President Vladimir Putin and is generally accused of thirsting for power with little regard for political ideals.
The 53-year-old -- her hair bleached and braided in a peasant style meant to appeal to her Ukrainian nationalist base -- won an early release from a disputed jail sentence within hours of parliament's decision to strip Yanukovych of power last month.
- Eastern hope -
The pro-Russian camp's main candidate emerged on Saturday from a tumultuous Regions Party congress that first purged Yanukovych and several other ousted ministers from its ranks.
The one-time ruling parliament faction has been decimated by mass desertions and is now a shadow of the political force that carried Yanukovych to victory in 2010 presidential polls.
It decided on Saturday to back the candidacy of former eastern Kharkiv region governor Mykhailo Dobkin -- a colourful figure of limited mass appeal who is currently under investigation for urging Russian speakers to resist Kiev's rule.
The probe means that the 44-year-old will have to limit his campaigning to daylight hours because he has been placed under partial house arrest and is forbidden from being outdoors in the evenings.