A little thrill swept through the thousands assembled on Lvov's main square when Yulia Tymoshenko, dressed in a flowing pink robe and her hair in her trademark peasant braids, took the stage.
To warm up, the heroine of the 2004 "Orange Revolution" sang a patriotic song with one of the country's top rock groups. Then she launched into a passionate, 85-minute speech to convince skeptics that Ukraine remains on the path to democracy and integration with the West, despite the past three years of debilitating political crisis.
A victory for her Fatherland Party (BYuT) in this Sunday's emergency parliamentary elections could bring a breakthrough, she insisted. "I will do what needs to be done, I promise you that," she said, to scattered applause.
Ms. Tymoshenko is not alone in billing this campaign as a battle for Ukraine's soul, between the Western-leaning Orange parties led by herself and President Viktor Yushchenko, and the pro-Russian "Blue" Party of Regions headed by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich. But some voters say they're exhausted, and increasingly skeptical, because this is Ukraine's fourth election in less than three years, and most surveys suggest the lineup in the 450-seat Supreme Rada is unlikely to change.
"It's impossible not to feel disillusioned," says Nikolai Zhupylo, a social psychologist with the independent Socionika Center in Lvov. "There is a growing part of the population that will never again be interested in politics. Now people are more concerned with solving their own personal problems."
All surveys taken in early September, before a ban on publishing preelection polls came into effect, put Mr. Yanukovich's party in the lead with about a third of the votes. Tymoshenko's BYuT comes second with up to 23 percent, while Mr. Yushchenko's Our Ukraine coalition trails with under 15 percent. Of 20 or so small parties in the running, only the Communists appear poised to hurdle the 3 percent barrier for winning seats in the Rada.
'Strong temptation' to fix ballots
Recent elections in Ukraine have been deemed clean and fair by international observers, but concern about voter fraud – thought to have been banished by the pro-democracy Orange Revolution – have resurfaced during the current campaign.
Under Ukraine's election system, voters cast their ballots for a national party rather than a locally-based candidate. Thus, authorities in the heavily Orange west and Blue east have inducements to maximize their party's showing by any means possible.
"Half of Ukraine supports Orange, and the other half Blue, so a tiny additional margin added by cheating could make all the difference," says Roman Koshovi, Lvov chairman of the Committee of Ukrainian Voters, an independent monitoring group. "The temptation to fix some ballots will be very strong on all sides."
Last week Ukraine's SBU security service, which is controlled by Yushchenko, accused regional authorities in the eastern region of Kharkov of registering almost 100,000 nonexistent persons on the voter rolls.
Tymoshenko has alleged that recent amendments to election laws introduced by Yanukovich's government could deprive more than 1 million Ukrainians of their right to vote and enable corrupt local authorities to stuff ballot boxes.
"Ukraine is again facing the threat of massive falsification," she warned.
All three big political parties are already pitching tents and positioning supporters on Kiev's central Maidan square – where the Orange Revolution unfolded – in order to launch mass protests if Sunday's results show any suspicious gains for either side.
To avoid such turmoil, Ukraine's nongovernmental groups intend to carry out four separate nationwide exit polls, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has sent 600 election observers to monitor the counting.
Why Orange lost momentum
Many Ukrainians blame Yushchenko for fumbling the opportunity handed to him by the Orange Revolution, which vaulted him into power with a mandate to introduce sweeping market reforms, take Ukraine into NATO and prepare it for eventual membership in the European Union.
Instead, the Orange coalition dissolved as Yushchenko quarrelled with, then fired, Prime Minister Tymoshenko. Parliamentary polls last year brought Yanukovich back as president. Most of the time since has been consumed with infighting between president and parliament.
Though Ukraine's economy boasts an estimated growth rate of 7 percent this year, reforms are on hold pending resolution of the political deadlock. A recent survey by the Kiev-based Institute of Social and Political Psychology found that corruption is rampant, with over half of Ukrainians reporting that they regularly pay bribes to officials to get things done.
"A lot of public money is supposedly directed at fixing up this city's infrastructure, but the results suggest that much of that money just goes missing," says Igor Gulik, editor of the liberal daily Lvivskaya Gazeta in Lvov.
What will new parliament do?
If the Orange and Blue forces are evenly matched, experts say, much will depend on the ability of the fiery Orange populist, Tymoshenko, to cobble together a large enough parliamentary coalition to become prime minister; if not, the pro-Moscow technocrat Yanukovich is likely to return.
Both rivals of Yushchenko, Tymoshenko and Yanukovich are already angling for the main prize: to unseat him when the next presidential polls roll around in 2009. Some experts suggest that it might be better to get that over with sooner.
"I don't see the outcome of these elections solving Ukraine's crisis of power," says Anatoly Romaniuk, a political scientist at Ivan Franko University in Lvov. "If the crisis deepens, it will push Ukraine toward early presidential elections, and that might provide a clear resolution and a way forward."