KIEV, Ukraine – An extravagantly dressed pop diva, a retired football star, the son of a famous actor, an opposition leader suspiciously cozy with the government. Meet some members of the eclectic cast running in Sunday's parliamentary election in Ukraine.
Ukrainian political parties have brought in celebrities or even created fake opposition in an effort to boost their ratings and split their rivals' vote. Such tactics raise questions about Ukraine's commitment to democracy and its hopes of integrating with the West.
The two main pro-Western opposition parties hope to challenge President Viktor Yanukovych's nearly three-year grip on power. They aim to wrestle the parliamentary majority away from his Party of Regions and undo actions that have been judged undemocratic by the West, such as the imprisonment of charismatic former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
The Party of Regions has tried to raise its profile by offering the No. 2 spot on its candidate list to pop diva Taisia Povaliy, which guarantees her a seat in Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada. The 47-year-old blonde, who wears low-cut, floor-length gowns and sings about the pain of lost love, acknowledges that politics had never been her calling.
"I never thought that I would run for parliament, I never planned it. And then I discovered that people — the people themselves — want me to represent them," Povaliy said on a TV celebrity gossip program. "What difference does it make if I work on stage or in the Verkhovna Rada?"
Another party running for parliament, called Ukraine Forward and led by former Tymoshenko ally Natalia Korolevska, is widely believed to be supported by the ruling party and aimed at siphoning off opposition votes. Korolevska, a 37-year-old businesswoman turned politician, was ousted from Tymoshenko's party this spring after she refused to support a motion calling for the jailed leader's release.
She went on to found her own party, hoping to attract Tymoshenko's voters looking for an attractive and pro-Western female leader. But even though she denies any links to the government and calling for the ouster of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, Korolevska gets so much airtime on government-friendly television channels that she is viewed as a tool of Yanukovych's campaign.
To lead her party's candidate list, Korolevska brought in retired football star Andriy Shevchenko and actor Ostap Stupka, the less illustrious son of late renowned actor Bohdan Stupka. Giant billboards of her and the two celebrities went up along streets and roads.
Shevchenko, the 36-year-old striker known as Sheva, is extremely popular in Ukraine, but many wonder how he would make the transition to lawmaker.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Shevchenko said he planned to concentrate on sports and health issues in parliament and cited the poor athletic condition of many Ukrainian school students as one of the top problems in the country.
"What has Ukraine come to? Today, 70 percent of children cannot do a simple set of physical exercises," Shevchenko said.
Andreas Umland, a political scientist at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, said the use of such tricks known here as "political technologies" are corrupting the political process in this former Soviet republic.
"Obviously, the readiness to manipulate politics with all sorts of dubious strategies is high, and includes the active use of politically incompetent, but famous figures," Umland said. "Political technology is a concept unknown in the West."
And the celebrities are only happy to oblige. It seems that many of them run for parliament motivated more by the perks and parliamentary immunity enjoyed by Ukrainian lawmakers than a desire to the serve the nation — a trend manifested by the fact that scores of legislators routinely ditch parliament sessions and allow colleagues to vote for them.
World boxing champion Vitali Klitshcko, 40, is also running for parliament, but he has years of political experience and a record of challenging Yanukovych's party in the Kiev city council "like a burr under the saddle," as he puts it. With the charismatic Tymoshenko in prison, his Udar (Punch) party has gained popularity in recent months and is running neck-and-neck with Tymoshenko's party. The two parties' failure to join forces plays into the hands of Yanukovych.
The extremely tall and muscular Klitshchko says that competing on Ukraine's political arena, with its dirty tricks and below-the-belt punches, can be harder than fighting in the boxing ring.
"We have declared a fight for Ukraine and we will win it!" he told hundreds of cheering supporters at a campaign rally in Kiev last week.
With the campaign almost over, pollsters say that the use of celebrities has largely failed to sway Ukrainian voters. Korolevska's party is now less popular than before taking on Shevchenko, prompting her to replace posters showing him and Stupka, the actor, with just her face.
"This demonstrates the stupidity of our politicians," said Iryna Bekeshkina, head of the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, a polling agency. "At the end of the day our voter, of course, is still far away from being rational, but still he is not that stupid."