Jan 1 (Reuters) - A total of 18 candidates are taking part in Ukraine's presidential election on Jan. 17, including President Viktor Yushchenko, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and former Prime Minister and opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich.
Others taking part include parliament Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, ex-Speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk and former central bank head Serhiy Tyhypko. In a protest against the system, one contestant has formally changed his surname to 'Protyvsikh' which means 'against all'.
No candidate is expected to win the first round outright. However, Yanukovich and Tymoshenko are widely seen as likely to face each other in a run-off on Feb. 7
Yushchenko himself has only the slimmest chances of re-election, according to many opinion polls.
Here is some background on the main players:
* YULIA TYMOSHENKO (49) - prime minister:
-- Her energy, impassioned speeches, and peasant-style hair braid make her one of the most dominant figures in Ukraine.
-- Called the "gas princess" for her early involvement in the gas industry, from which she is believed to have amassed a fortune, she was deputy prime minister in charge of energy in 2000 and won praise for her reform efforts.
-- Born in November 1960, the slightly-built Tymoshenko wears eye-catching designer outfits from Paris fashion houses.
-- After being dismissed as deputy prime minister, she spent several weeks in jail in 2001 accused of forging customs documents and smuggling gas. She was subsequently cleared of all charges.
-- She was allied with Viktor Yushchenko, now president, during the 2004 "Orange Revolution" when her rousing speeches kept hundreds of thousands on the streets for weeks. The two are now deadly rivals.
-- Yushchenko appointed her his first prime minister in 2005 but the honeymoon was short-lived -- he sacked her after eight months, with each accusing the other of corruption. She was appointed for a second time in December 2007.
-- Her policies included compensation for depositors who lost Soviet-era savings, price controls on food and medicines to bring inflation down, calls for a review of murky privatisations and high social spending.
-- For some time, she was ridiculed in the Russian media but in late 2008 the Kremlin, seeing her opposition to Yushchenko, got swiftly behind her for the top job in Ukraine.
-- In early December, Russia's Vladimir Putin denied Moscow was backing her for president.
-- Putin and Tymoshenko met in Yalta in November and brokered a deal between their state energy companies that gave Ukraine softer terms for buying natural gas and avoiding a repeat of last year's gas dispute.
-- Although she was born in the Russian-speaking east, she has spent many years improving her Ukrainian to broaden her appeal.
* VIKTOR YUSHCHENKO (55) - president:
-- The former central bank chief and prime minister was the victim of dioxin poisoning in the 2004 presidential campaign. His face was disfigured and he underwent a series of operations.
-- Yushchenko has made membership of NATO and the European Union cornerstones of policy. Born in northern Ukraine in February 1954, he is religious and deeply committed to Ukrainian statehood.
-- His insistence that the 1930s Stalin-era 'Holodomor' -- the famine in Ukraine and neighbouring Soviet republics in which between 7 and 10 million people died -- was a deliberate genocide has angered Moscow.
-- Popular support after his victory in the re-run 2004 election ebbed away as his aim of turning Ukraine into a modern state with a Western orientation gave way to infighting and indecision.
-- His credibility fell further after he agreed to appoint Yanukovich prime minister in 2006, subject to a deal that was supposed to leave pro-Western policy goals intact.
-- Yushchenko regularly criticises Tymoshenko. He has accused her government of everything from using fears of a swine flu epidemic to secure more money for the budget, to striking a ruinous deal with Russia over natural gas supplies.
* VIKTOR YANUKOVICH (59) - opposition leader, former prime minister:
-- Born in July 1950, the beefy and blunt Yanukovich has changed his image to become a more capable public speaker.
-- A native Russian speaker from the Donbass coalfield region, he has made efforts to speak better Ukrainian, the country's national language, but he often stumbles over words.
-- He is widely seen as representing the interests of Ukraine big business and his campaign benefits from backing by shadowy billionaire Rinat Akhmetov.
-- Backed in 2004 by Moscow, he was initially declared the winner of a rigged presidential election, but lost the re-run of the poll to Yushchenko.
-- He made a comeback in 2006 when Yushchenko appointed him prime minister after "orange" parties failed to form a coalition. However, he left office after his Regions Party and its allies were outscored by "orange" parties in a snap 2007 election.
-- Yanukovich has warmer relations with Russia and is cool about Yushchenko's plans to seek fast-track NATO membership. Like most politicians in Ukraine, he supports further integration with the European Union.
-- In his youth, he was imprisoned twice for theft and assault. His aides said the charges were struck from the record and no documents are available on the issue.
-- At the start of official campaigning in October, Tymoshenko's supporters went on the offensive against Yanukovich.
-- Tymoshenko loyalists revived old rumours that Yanukovich had taken part in a gang-rape and beating of a woman when he was a youth. They said these charges had been brought to the attention of the prosecutors several years ago. Serhiy Lyovochkin, deputy head of Yanukovich's Regions party, denied the accusations.
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