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.
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."
The Party of Regions, which is rooted in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, has tried to sweeten its appeal by adding celebrities to its party list, including one of Ukraine's top pop stars, Taisia Povaliy, to whom it has handed the No. 2 slot. Though polls vary, an Oct. 14 survey by the independent Democratic Initiative Foundation in Kiev found that the Party of Regions is likely to pull down about 23 percent of the votes. Its main partner, the Communist Party, is expected to win around 10 percent.
The liberal opposition party of boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, appropriately named UDAR (Punch), runs second in the survey with 16 percent. The jailed Ms. Tymoshenko's Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party appears to be a close third, with about 15 percent.
In a statement read out to the media on Thursday, the typically fiery and uncompromising Tymoshenko warned that Ukrainians would pay a heavy price if they return the Party of Regions to power.
This election is a "war which can end with your victory and a chance for change or with our total historical failure," she said.
"If, thanks to your votes, Yanukovich survives as a politician in these elections, he will establish a dictatorship and will never again give up power by peaceful means," she added.
One more opposition party, the western Ukraine-based nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party, appears to be hovering near the minimum 5 percent threshold needed to enter the Rada.
Tough economic times ahead
Virtually everyone agrees that, whatever configuration emerges in the next parliament, Ukraine is facing very serious economic headwinds that are likely to challenge Yanukovych's grip on power in the coming months.
"Our economy has peaked and, the problem is, we don't know where it's heading now," says Vasily Khara, a leading Party of Regions deputy in the Rada. "Our industry is outdated, we have a raw materials-based economy that has reached its limits. You can't keep speeding up an old car, no matter how good the driver is..... Right now we are swimming with the tide," he says, noting that Ukraine's economy grew by around 5 percent last year.
But some experts say growth is flagging, and Ukraine might have already entered a recession. Under Yanukovych, corruption has taken off, leading the Berlin-based Transparency International to downgrade Ukraine this year from 134th to 152nd place in its international Corruption Perceptions Index.
"Now is the time to take stock, and start thinking about a new economic direction for the future," says Mr. Khara.
Some experts argue that all the conflict and bombast of a hard-fought election campaign can have the side effect of obscuring Ukraine's greatest achievement, which is that, 20 years after the collapse of the USSR, it remains one of the few vibrant and developing democracies in the region -- and that is unlikely to change whatever the outcome of this election.
"The main dynamic to watch is the growth of civil society, which in Ukraine is truly impressive, energetic, and broad," says Vira Nanivska, director of the International Institute of Political Studies in Kiev.
"We see all kinds of new synergies among civil society groups. They are very active, and they are increasingly working to effect changes from the ground up.... This is the strongest guarantee that Ukraine is still carrying on the democratic course it set in 1992, and that this will continue no matter what the government of the day looks like," she adds.