UMAN, Ukraine — In Ukraine's superheated political scene, presidential front-runner Petro Poroshenko cuts a notably cool figure.
The soft-spoken candy tycoon has a pragmatic bent and a penchant for compromise — which may be an asset for Ukraine as it tries to cool tensions with Russia while cultivating closer ties with the European Union.
Since independence in 1991, Ukraine's politics has been dominated by figures holding dogmatic positions even to the point of self-destruction. Poroshenko, in contrast, gets criticized for lacking any obvious ideology, making him an enigma at a time when Ukraine is struggling to find a clear direction.
But as Ukraine struggles through a complex and frequently violent crisis, voters seem to think a flexible man is what the country needs right now. Opinion polls show the 48-year-old Poroshenko far ahead of the other 20 candidates in Sunday's presidential election. His 35 percent support is not enough to win the first round outright, but the same polls indicate he'd win the runoff three weeks later.
The presidential election is a critical step for Ukraine. Russia, which the West alleges is fomenting the unrest in eastern Ukraine, claims the acting government is a junta. A credible election would bring a level of legitimacy to Ukraine's government and undermine Moscow's argument that it needs to intervene in the country's affairs.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has cautiously endorsed the election, describing it as a "step in the right direction."
Moscow, however, stopped short of endorsing any candidate and made it clear that it does not support anyone in particular, because it views the ouster of Russia-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych as illegitimate.
Poroshenko is a staunch EU supporter but says it's important to mend ties with Russia quickly. Relations with Moscow should be equal and should not undermine Ukrainians' desire for closer ties with the European Union, he says.
"We must build a relationship with our neighbor, Russia, in a way that they would first of all ensure the security of Ukrainian citizens," he said on a campaign trail earlier this week. But "in order to speak with Russia as equals, we have to build a strong state."
Facing criticism for his stint in Yanukovych's government as economics minister in 2012, Poroshenko told the Ukrainian Korrespondent magazine last year that he was ready to "put his reputation at risk" in preparing the ground for a trade deal with the European Union.
Above all, it's Poroshenko's levelheadedness — after years of an almost soap opera-like atmosphere in Ukrainian politics — that seems to inspire hope in Ukraine.
"Poroshenko is a rational man and a realist who prefers negotiations to hostilities," said analyst Vadim Karasyov. "Poroshenko is an industrialist; he's not a man of ideology."
Once elected, Karasyov says, he will be talking to the Kremlin and to Russia's richest men, Rinat Akhmetov and Ihor Kolomoisky, in an effort to defuse the tensions and put an end to violence in the east.
Unlike many other Ukrainian billionaires, Poroshenko did not make his fortune in murky post-Soviet privatizations, but instead was seen to have built his chocolate empire brick by brick. His kingdom is not the coal mines with underpaid workers and poor safety standards, but Willy Wonka-like chocolate stores and candies on sale in every kiosk across the country. As a result, Poroshenko is largely perceived as the "good tycoon."
Poroshenko, estimated by Forbes magazine to be worth $1.6 billion, wasn't a leader of the massive protests that precipitated President Yanukovych's ouster in February. Still he was the first of Ukraine's tycoons to publicly support the demonstrations and has remained a prominent figure since then, as Ukraine has helplessly watched Crimea split off and join Russia, followed by pro-Russia insurgents seizing government buildings in the east and declaring independence.
Some see Poroshenko as a protean political survivor, others as an opportunist without loyalty to anyone but himself.
Poroshenko, who comes from the south of Ukraine, evenly divided between Ukrainian and Russian speakers, began his career in politics in 1998 as a lawmaker in a Russian-friendly party. In 2001, he was one of the founders of the Party of Regions, the political power behind Yanukovych.
Yet he soon parted ways with that party to throw his support behind the 2004 Orange Revolution that brought Yanukovych's arch-rival Viktor Yushchenko to power. He served as Yushchenko's head of the national security council, but stepped down within months amid allegations of corruption and after consistent feuding with Yulia Tymoshenko, then prime minister.
Tymoshenko, who lost the last presidential election to Yanukovych, is Poroshenko's closest challenger in Sunday's vote, attracting about 6 percent support.
Poroshenko later returned to government as foreign minister. And after Yanukovych became president, ousting the Orange Revolution team, Poroshenko served as economics minister for a few months in 2012.
Voters "see in him what they want to see," said Karasyov, noting how Poroshenko's line-crossing abilities appear to bolster his support.
Some Ukrainians admit they will be voting for him even though their hearts are elsewhere.
"I'm going to vote for him because he's the only electable candidate in this election," said 39-year-old businessman Yuri Asesorov. "It's a technical choice because I would like to see other faces without a past in Ukrainian politics. But I'm going to vote for Poroshenko, for the future of Ukraine."
If he does not inspire the devotion enjoyed by Tymoshenko and Yanukovych, whose rallies routinely featured weeping women, that may be a sign that Ukraine's voters are maturing, said commentator Vitaly Portnikov.
"The majority of citizens are not expecting the new president to come and change everything, which means that there are more and more people among us who are ready to take on the responsibility for their lives and their country," he wrote in the magazine Focus.
Poroshenko has been known as a dealmaker open to compromise. In March, he scored a major victory by forging an alliance with former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko who had been viewed as the strongest contender for the presidency. Klitschko endorsed Poroshenko as a presidential candidate while Poroshenko promised him support in the Kiev mayor campaign.
Although he allied himself with Ukraine's pro-West demonstrations, Poroshenko has spoken against holding a vote on whether Ukraine should seek NATO membership. After Russia occupied Crimea ahead of the March secession referendum, pro-NATO sentiment spiked in much of Ukraine, but many in the eastern regions oppose it.
Like most other candidates, Poroshenko promises a wide devolution of powers that will allow regions to manage revenues, taxes as well as other issues on their own. Poroshenko says Ukraine should move fast to improve its investment climate and attract investors, which he sees as key to the country's well-being.
Speaking at a campaign rally in Uman, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of Kiev, Poroshenko stressed the importance and even urgency of a first-round win — which remains a possibility given a last-minute surge in support for him.
"We need to unite in order to win as early as in the first round," Poroshenko told hundreds of supporters. "A victory on May 25 will be our common victory. This means, on May 26 there will be a commander-in-chief, success in the operation in the east, an end to chaos."
Volodymyr Melnichiuk, a 79-year-old pensioner, says he will be voting for Poroshenko because he seems to care about thousands of the workers he employs.
"He invested his time and health to make his fortune," he said. "He's a real master; he's not an evil person."
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