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Now that Vitali Klitschko has withdrawn his bid for president in Ukraine, the vote is likely to come down to a race between Petro Poroshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko. But billionaire Petro Poroshenko has the lead - for now.
The boxing champ has thrown in the towel. Had he pushed through with a bid for president, Vitali Klitschko would have had very slim chances. Instead, he will seek election as mayor of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.
Klitschko's decision to support billionaire Petro Poroshenko in the presidential election is a "clever decision," said Kyryl Savin of the Green party-affiliated Heinrich Böll Foundation in Kyiv. In the last provisional voter polls, the politically inexperienced Klitschko's hopes were laid bare. "When the next opportunity arises, he'll probably put his hat in the ring for president or prime minister."
Tailwind for Poroshenko
For Poroshenko, Klitschko's support means additional momentum for his presidential campaign. In recent weeks, Poroshenko has achieved a good position in the polls that may now see a boost from members of Klitschko's Udar (Punch) party. That's important in part because Poroshenko's own small party, Solidarnist (Solidarity), has won few votes in past elections in Ukraine.
Poroshenko himself is considered to have a clean record. The "Chocolate Baron" is credited with generating his estimated 1.3 billion euro ($1.79 billion) fortune on his own. Starting by selling cocoa beans, he gradually incurred more and more candy factories and went on to found the branch heavyweight Roshen. Now, he also owns automobile and bus factories, a shipyard and the private TV station Channel 5.
While amassing his billions, Poroshenko seems to have stayed within the law, said Svitlana Zalishchuk, whose CHESNO ("Honest") non-profit put all of the presidential candidates under a microscope. "We couldn't find any instances of corruption," she said.
Furthermore, Zalishchuk said, the billionaire has operated relatively transparently in politics. "Last year, he published the names of his employees and the times he was available to speak with citizens. He just didn't publish his side income - that's the only negative that we could ascertain."
Poroshenko's popularity apparently hasn't suffered as a result of the fact that he has switched parties multiple times since the beginning of his political career in the late 1990s. Initially, he was a supporter of then-President Leonid Kuchma. Together with Kuchma's protege, Viktor Yanukovych, he founded the Party of Regions, until he ultimately joined forces with the party's rival Viktor Yushchenko. Poroshenko was the sole oligarch to support the Orange Revolution and became foreign minister. When Yanukovych took power, Poroshenko briefly assumed leadership of the country's Economics Ministry. During the recent Maidan protests, Poroshenko sided with the opposition.
Savin sees this political flexibility as Poroshenko's survival strategy. "As a businessman with major concerns, it's best not to be on the side of the opposition, or your business will suffer." Savin didn't rule out the possibility that Poroshenko will also continue to change his positions in the future.
Rebuff to radical nationalists
The entrepreneur has clearly distanced himself right-wing extremists and their militant rhetoric against right-wing extremists. "I don't think he is going to play the radical nationalist card," said Savin. "On the contrary: He'll try to keep the country together somehow."
The polls indicate that Poroshenko enjoys popularity even in the pro-Russian, eastern parts of the country - in contrast to his rival Yulia Tymoshenko. Savin said that's partly due to the politician's wealth. "For eastern Ukrainian voters, that's a positive signal: 'He is one of us - or someone who is similar to our great leaders.'"
After a telephone recording emerged in which former Prime Minister Tymoshenko issued death threats against Russian President Vladimir Putin, her poll numbers have been plummeting. Does that mean Poroshenko can bank on an easy victory in the first round of the presidential election? Savin was skeptical, "Tymoshenko is known for running very good campaigns and being able to win votes. That's why I'm expecting a neck-to-neck race. It's very likely that both will go into the runoff vote."
Svitlana Zalishchuk, on the other hand, saw slim changes for the one-time icon of the Orange Revolution. "She is a politician of the past," she said. "Her era is over."