Ukraine Prepares For General Election

KIEV, Ukraine -- As the world looks to London, a more important contest has kicked off in Kyiv with star quality of its own.

Young Ukrainians are flocking to Vitaliy Klytschko's party Udar (Punch).

Four years ago, under cover of the Beijing Games, Russia and Georgia engaged in a bloody bout of tit-for-tat violence, which damaged both countries' international reputations and did little to improve the prospects of people in the region.

Now, with the Five-Ring Circus under way in the United Kingdom, all seems thankfully quiet on the Eastern front.

However, the campaigning for Ukraine's October parliamentary election, which officially began July 30, shouldn't be allowed to slip under the radar as the results will have far-reaching impact.

The protagonists in this important contest have no intention of being overshadowed by events elsewhere, and many of them are used to strutting their stuff on the international stage, albeit not exclusively in relation to party politics.

Several well-known faces return from previous elections.

President Viktor Yanukovych, notorious for his role in rigging the 2004 elections, is sure to feature prominently in support of the parliamentary candidates from his Party of Regions.

There is also serial parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, who recently resigned over the controversial (and allegedly fraudulent) passing of the inflammatory language law that challenged the supremacy of Ukrainian, and, of course, the country's most internationally famous politician and contemporary icon, Yulia Tymoshenko.

Tymoshenko, who became massively wealthy in the lawless '90s before becoming the face of the so-called Orange Revolution, will have a lead role in a cage, having been incarcerated following what has been widely condemned as a politically motivated prosecution.

Tymoshenko was convicted of exceeding her powers as prime minister in what was described by the judge as an "abuse of office" in negotiating a gas deal with Russia on "unfavourable terms," which implied that she benefitted personally at the expense of the pensioners who form Yanukovych's core constituency.

Tymoshenko denies the charges.

However, there are also some new stars about to enter the fray.

In the Red Corner is reigning WBC heavyweight boxing champion Vitaliy Klytschko, who heads a party, Udar, named for his famously powerful punch.

Klytschko is multilingual and holds a PhD in sports science, earning him the nickname "Dr. Ironfist."

Young Ukrainians have flocked to Klytschko's party, which has raced to more than 9 percent in opinion polls, seeing the urbane boxer - who was caught in police teargas at protests over the language law - as a credible and upright alternative to the crooked politicians who have held sway over Ukrainian politics for so long.

Should he be elected, there would be no doubt Klytschko could prove a useful asset in the frequent brawls that break out in Ukrainian Parliament, the Verkhovna Rada.

Some say the institution should be renamed the Verkhovna Prada due to members' penchant for ostentatious wealth.

Aside from systemic corruption, Klytschko will need to address the discontent among grassroots activists in Odessa, who claim the party is being hijacked by corrupt groups that have long held sway in the region.

Klytschko will need all his ringcraft if Udar is not to become merely another virtual opposition while he laments he could have been a contender.

Another athlete entering the political scene is Ukraine's most beloved footballer, recently retired star-striker Andriy Shevchenko.

Rather than standing alone, "Sheva" is adding yet another wealthy team to his career, joining Nataliya Korolevska's Forward Ukraine party.

Having played for Roman Abramovich's Chelsea and for AC Milan, whose owner, disgraced Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, is the godfather of Shevchenko's first son, the record goalscorer is no stranger to burnishing the reputation of the dubiously wealthy.

Korolevska, who supported Yanukovych in the rigged 2004 elections before becoming a part of Tymoshenko's bloc, is alleged to have a personal fortune in excess of $200 million.

Shevchenko said he plans to focus on the social sector and on sports.

"After all, my main slogan is a healthy mind in a healthy body," he said.

Perhaps he would do well to heed the advice of the flyers handed out by activists in Lviv over the weekend, urging voters to provide a dose of well-needed garlic to filter out the thieves, liars, puppets and truants from the Rada.

If Shevchenko took this literally, he would have to start by filtering out his new teammate and risk scoring a political own goal for the good of the country.

Despite the emergence of these high-profile candidates, it seems likely the battle will be between the usual suspects.

Leading opinion polls are the bloc created from Tymoshenko's Fatherland party, former Foreign Affairs Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk's Front for Change, the Party of Regions and their allies, the Communists.

The latter openly parasitizes socialist nostalgia and, despite routinely propping up the oligarch-supported Party of Regions, have high-profile campaigns advocating taxing the rich and returning the country to "the people."

It is not beyond the realm of possibility that one of the new parties could be playing kingmaker come October, but if they fail to make real change, they risk the wrath of a jilted generation who came to understand Orange as a revolution in name only.

The activities of "artivists" Revolutionary Experimental Space and the chest-baring feminist group Femen show that in a country where millions face grinding, emiserating poverty and nakedly bipolar distribution of wealth with tremendous dignity and good humor, the spirit of political change and democratic self-determination remain alive and well.

The newly politicized sporting heroes would do well to look to these groups for inspiration if they are not to add insult to the injuries suffered time and again by protesters, and become just another ring of circuses in a land too often without bread.

Source: The Prague Post