Ukraine vote: Pro-West parties set for victory, but can they clean house?

Ukraine's once-dominant pro-Russia party is gone, and pro-Europe parties look set to sweep Sunday's elections. But experts are doubtful that the new assembly – which will likely include some of the same old faces – will be less corrupt.

Gleb Garanich/Reuters
A combination photo shows pre-election posters from the streets of Kiev on Wednesday. Ukrainians will take part in its first post-Maidan parliamentary election on Oct. 26.

Amid deepening economic gloom, an unresolved civil war, and even warnings of imminent terrorist attack, Ukrainians will elect a new parliament Sunday to chart a way out of the crisis.

The beleaguered government of President Petro Poroshenko hopes the new parliament will bring the fresh faces and new energies needed to launch basic economic reforms and anti-corruption measures, and convince Ukraine's weary public that last winter's Maidan revolution is being fulfilled.

However the elections' specifics ultimately turn out, Ukraine looks set to vote in a slate of pro-European parties and leave the once dominant Party of Regions out in the cold. But it's unclear whether the new parliament – which is likely to include many faces from the old – can bring about the changes that Ukrainians say the country needs. 

"I'd be very happy if anything would be done to stop this country from rushing down the road to ruin. Everywhere we look there are problems that just keep getting worse," says Natalia Maximenko, a teacher who joined a small protest on Kiev's main Kreshchatyk avenue Friday against collapsing living standards.

"But all these politicians are busy wrapping themselves in flags, making wild promises, but nobody seems to have any practical ideas. I don't know who I'm going to vote for," she says.

Pro-Europe parties ascendant

Half of the 450 deputies to the Supreme Rada, Ukraine's unicameral parliament, will be elected according to candidate lists posted by the 29 parties in the running. The other half will be chosen in first-past-the-post constituency races in most of the country, with the exception of rebel-held Donbass and Russian-annexed Crimea.

Ukraine has experienced a political earthquake in the past year. The country's biggest political force, the pro-Russian Party of Regions of former President Viktor Yanukovych has evaporated since he was overthrown last February. In its place, two new parties are trying to appeal to the Russian-speaking easterners who backed the ex-president. But it's not clear that either of them will win the 5 percent support needed to enter the Rada.

"If no pro-Russian parties make it in, it's possible that many in eastern Ukraine will feel deceived and left out of the process," says Vladimir Panchenko, director of the independent Center of Political Studies in Kiev. "After these elections, we will probably see new and better-organized parties appear in the east, perhaps based on the interests of the Russian minority."

But most experts argue that the "pro-Russian" versus "pro-European" divide that defined Ukrainian politics since the collapse of the USSR is already a thing of the past.

Whatever parliament forms in Kiev next week, they say, it's going to have a solid pro-Western majority. The parties leading in the final polls last week all appear to be various flavors of pro-European, with differences over how fast to depart Moscow's orbit and how sternly to prosecute the war against east Ukraine's Russian-backed rebels.

Mr. Poroshenko's eponymous bloc is in the lead, with just over 20 percent. The Radical Party of Oleh Lyashko, a nationalist who's been condemned by human rights activists for having been filmed roughly interrogating rebel prisoners, appears to be running second with around 9 percent. The parties of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and former Orange Revolution heroine Yulia Tymoshenko are the only other ones that appear to have enough support to hurdle the 5 percent barrier.

But with the voting just days away, almost a third of Ukrainians declared they are still undecided. Another wild card appears to uncertainty about what kind of candidates will win in local constituencies, where many with links to Ukraine's old-line bureaucrats and wealthy oligarchs appear to be running.

"We're going to have to wait and see how many genuinely new people get into the new parliament," says Andrei Lynnyk, of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, a grassroots monitoring group. "I'm not sure the results we'll get will be the ones society expects. If not, this parliament might not last very long."

'Real changes'?

Experts say the main demand of the Maidan revolution was to put an end to Ukraine's arbitrary bureaucratic rule and endemic corruption. Despite a new law launching a purge of officials with links to the Yanukovych regime, few expect thorough change without a pro-reform majority in parliament to drive the process forward.

"All the main parties in the running have candidates on their lists who were involved in corruption scandals in the past," says Vladimir Paniotto, head of the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, Ukraine's leading pollster. "This is not a good sign."

But analysts say there are also many civil activists and veterans of the war in the east running on party lists.

"I think Ukrainian voters are wise enough to understand they've been used by politicians for years," says Mr. Lynnyk. "Society is demanding real changes. It's hard, and it may be a long struggle, but it's going to happen."

Some analysts hope that the new legislature will, at the very least, be dominated by pragmatists who'll try to keep the country stable and united through the difficult winter months to come.

"If only to reassure the West that we have responsible government, not a bunch of politicians at each other's throats, we need a professional parliament," says Mr. Panchenko. "If not, we can kiss goodbye to all hopes of Western aid and investment that we desperately need."

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