Ukraine heads to the polls, with pro-Russian government in lead
Ukraine's Sunday polls look set to reinstall a government that has aligned the country more closely with Russia. But at least three opposition parties are poised to establish a counterbalance.
Ukrainians will vote a new parliament Sunday, in the first elections since President Viktor Yanukovych took sweeping steps to realign the country with Moscow, downgrade the State Rada, or parliament, consolidate power in the hands of the president, and introduce radical changes to the way parliamentarians are elected.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Most opinion polls suggest Mr. Yanukovych's Party of Regions and its main ally, the Communist Party, will be returned with a working majority. But despite the opposition being divided and demoralized – with about a dozen of its top leaders, including former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and ex-Interior Minister Yury Lutsenko, currently serving prison sentences – at least three anti-Yanukovych parties are expected to hurdle the 5 percent barrier and form a vibrant counterbalance to the ruling party in the next parliament.
"Even though the Party of Regions looks likely to win now, there is likely to be a very different picture after these elections," says Oleksiy Kolomiyets, president of the independent Center Of European and TransAtlantic Studies in Kiev.
"Though there's a lot of pressure, I think we shall preserve our democracy. Even though Yanukovych has changed the Constitution, and reshaped the political playing field, we can be sure that we'll have at least one legitimate organ of government: our parliament," he adds.
"Ukrainians are becoming more politically mature. They have more experience, and they are far less fearful than in the past."
The electoral reform, brought in last year, divides the 450-seat Rada into two parts. Half will be elected nationwide according to party lists, the other half in first-past-the-post local constituency races. Experts say they expect the party list voting to be reasonably fair, transparent, and predictable. But the local races are harder to forecast, they say, and are much more susceptible to corruption, vote-rigging, and coercion.
"There's a lot of what we call 'black PR' going on in the constituency contests, a lot of signs that voters are being bribed and intimidated," says Alexander Chernenko, chairman of the Committee of Ukrainian Voters, a grassroots election monitoring group.
"There is a war going on out there," he adds.
About 3,500 foreign election observers will be on hand to monitor Sunday's voting, and they'll be supplemented by tens of thousands of Ukrainian observers working with organizations such as Mr. Chernenko's group and the European Union-sponsored Opora, which aim to cover most of the country's 33,540 polling stations.
Pavel Movchan, a Rada deputy with Yulia Tymoshenko's bloc, claims that the ruling party is pouring state resources into the local races in order to bend results its way.
"The party of power is doing its best to buy votes," he alleges. "This election campaign involves colossal money; it's the most expensive campaign since [Ukrainian elections began in] 1989. Most of the money is being spent to bribe voters and buy off local election commissions."