Ukraine swings West. But could a divided parliament derail reform?

Pro-Europe parties showed strongly in Ukraine's elections Sunday. But an unexpectedly high tally for Prime Minister Yatsenyuk's party hints a possible repeat of the politics that upended a post-Orange Revolution Ukraine.

Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters
Mykhaylo Okhendovsky, head of the Ukrainian Central Election Commission, walks past a screen displaying the partial results of the parliamentary election at the commission's headquarters in Kiev, Ukraine, today.

Ukraine's elections were democratic and legitimate. Now the hard part begins: changing the country.

That's the snap judgment of most experts on Sunday's parliamentary elections, overwhelmingly won by pro-European parties that can be expected to spurn Moscow, push for liberal economic reforms, and seek closer ties with the West.

With most votes counted Monday, the respective parties of President Petro Poroshenko and his ambitious prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, were the big winners, taking roughly 21 percent each. The results were a modest setback for Mr. Poroshenko, whose bloc held a commanding lead ahead of polling. He lauded the vote, noting that three-quarters of Ukrainians had endorsed Ukraine's shift away from the Russian orbit and into Europe's.

Preliminary results suggest that six parties cleared the 5 percent threshold to take up seats in Ukraine's unicameral parliament. The liberal Self-Help party, based in western Ukraine and solidly pro-European, took around 11 percent. The ultra-nationalist bloc of Oleh Lyashko came in with just over 7 percent, and the party of fiery populist Yulia Tymoshenko got around 6 percent.

One result that polls failed to predict was the surprising success of the east Ukraine-based Opposition Bloc, which pledged to defend the interests of east Ukrainians against Kiev's dictates. It received almost 10 percent of votes cast.

Only half the parliament's 450 members were chosen according to party. The composition of other half, elected in constituency races around the country, will only become apparent later in the week. But most experts expect them to follow the general trend.

"It's going to be a more diverse parliament than many expected, but the main thing is we have a legitimate parliament, with a solid majority for change," says Anatoly Romaniuk, a political expert at Lviv University in western Ukraine. "Everything now will depend on their ability to get down to hard reforms."

A 'free and fair' first step

Almost all of the 2,500 international monitors who observed Sunday's voting across Ukraine reported few of the country's traditional problems with fraud and electoral abuse. Even in the war-ravaged east of the country the polls proceeded peacefully – with the exception of parts of Donetsk and Luhansk that remain under rebel control.

Even Moscow, which fielded no observers, indicated that it was ready to recognize the election results. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he hoped a strong new parliament would initiate a national dialogue to end the war that's killed thousands since the Maidan revolt that overthrew pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych last February.

Voter turnout of 52 percent seemed low for a snap election of such significance, suggesting that Ukraine's public was not fully engaged. Turnout ranged from a high of 70 percent in the western city of Lviv, to just under 40 percent in the Russian-speaking southern center of Odessa, to a low of 32 percent in Kiev-controlled areas of war-torn Donbass. Reports from eastern Ukraine suggest apathy and confusion was widespread on election day.

"The east is very complicated. On the areas controlled by Kiev, people are very happy the shooting has stopped, but they still have enormous distrust toward Kiev," says Alexander Chernenko, a former civic activist who was elected to parliament from Porosheko's bloc. "I've spent a good deal of time in the east in recent months, and I have no illusions that reconciliation is going to be a long and hard process."

Echoes of problems past?

Some analysts, recalling the crippling strife a decade ago between pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko and his hard-driving prime minister, Ms. Tymoshenko, that derailed the pro-Western Orange Revolution, worry that history could repeat itself.

"Poroshenko would have preferred to name his own prime minister, but now he'll definitely have to go with Yatsenyuk," says Mikhail Pogrebinsky, director of the independent Institute of Political and Conflict Studies in Kiev. "It's an opportunity to forge a strong coalition, but if they fall out it's a formula for disaster."

The two do have differences, over the war and the pace of economic reforms. They ended up competing on the ballot after failing to forge a pre-election united front. But they have managed to get along over the past several difficult months.

"Ukrainians expect them to move forward, create a solid coalition, and start to implement all those promises made on the Maidan," says Vladimir Horbach, an expert with the independent Institute of Euro-Atlantic Integration in Kiev. "If [the new Self-Help party from western Ukraine] joins their coalition, the majority could be big enough to make constitutional changes."

Provided a united Ukrainian government can make peace in the east and press ahead with economic reforms and anti-corruption measures, it might halt the flight of Western capital from Ukraine, and convince their governments to plow more aid into the economically stricken country.

Ukraine has had its election, and this is crunch time, says Mr. Romaniuk. "We need to initiate sweeping transformations, and make them work, or nobody is going to believe in us."

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