VYSHNEVE, Ukraine - The Western-style liberal party of heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko has surged in popularity to second place behind President Viktor Yanukovych's party ahead of Ukraine's Oct. 28 parliamentary election, polls showed on Monday.
Klitschko, a relative political novice, has been highly critical of Yanukovich's leadership and is focusing his party's campaign on fighting high-level corruption in the former Soviet republic of 46 million people.
Yanukovich's Party of the Regions and its allies are seeking to retain a majority in Ukraine's 450-seat parliament to cement his leadership and the interests of industrialists and big business who support him.
They are opposed by Klitschko's UDAR (Punch) and a combined bloc which includes the Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party of jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
A survey published by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation on Monday indicated that UDAR had the support of 16.0 percent of the voters, while the Regions stood at 23.3 percent. It showed UDAR had overtaken the United Opposition bloc, which includes Batkivshchyna, whose support had slipped to 15.1 percent.
The poll seemed to confirm the towering 41-year-old Klitschko as a powerful newcomer to Ukraine's political scene with his UDAR an emerging force to challenge the establishment Regions and the Batkivshchyna opposition.
The two-metre-tall, reigning heavyweight champion, nearing the end of his boxing career and running for parliament for the first time, said on Monday that ratings of 16 percent for UDAR could mean a parliament split of 50-50.
A previous survey by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation published on Sept. 27 had put support for the Regions at 28.1 percent, United Opposition at 25.6 percent and UDAR 11.5 percent.
But another pollster, marketing firm GfK, last week flagged a sudden rise in UDAR's popularity, putting it at 17 percent against 25 percent for the Regions and 15 percent for the United Opposition.
In the interview on Monday, Klitschko, who trained in Germany for much of his professional boxing career, said UDAR remained committed to "open politics" in Ukraine based on European democratic standards.
His party would now concentrate efforts on securing the nod of the 18-20 percent undecided voters.
(Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov and Pavel Polityuk)