As Ukraine goes to the polls for district, regional and city hall elections on October 25, key cities will see allies of former president Viktor Yanukovych win or retain office.
Across the country, local vested interests will remain in the driving seat, putting a question mark over plans for a radical decentralisation of public administration in Ukraine.
Politicians and businesspersons formerly linked to the governing 'Party of Regions' of Yanukovych will stage a come-back in Ukraine's first regional elections since the ousted president fled the country in February 2014, say analysts.
The resources they will draw on will be resilient local elite networks combined with bitterness in the impoverished population at harsh austerity measures and economic collapse under the current government of Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk.
The elections will be a bellwether for the political direction the embattled country is taking, and for the impact of a planned radical decentralisation of Ukraine as part of a reform programme.
One prominent political force will not be contesting Ukraine's regional elections on October 25 - Yatsenyuk’s own People's Front party, despite dominating parliamentary elections exactly one year ago in October 24, taking 22.12% of the vote only six weeks after being founded.
But with Ukraine reeling under the impact of a 10-15% economic contraction in 2015 combined with harsh austerity measures, support for the prime minister's party has evaporated to less than 3%.
Apparently to avoid a debacle, Yatsenyuk opted not to contest the regional elections, leaving the pro-government field free to President Petro Poroshenko's eponymous party, which unlike Yatsenyuk enjoys the full support of the Poroshenko-owned Channel 5 national TV network, as well as a newly-created Ministry of Information Policy, founded and run by a former head of Channel 5 and close friend of the president.
Bloc Petro Poroshenko itself was also created only weeks before the 2014 polls and is just as much as a top-down structure as People's Front, with little of the local grassroots support needed to local elections.
Therefore elections for mayors of the three crucial Ukrainian cities outside of Kyiv will be won by former allies of Yanukovych, apparently with acceptance of BPP, which will only field weak candidates.
The eastern industrial city of Dnipropetrovsk crucially remained loyal to Kyiv in 2014 as a Kremlin-backed insurgency captured the city of Donetsk only 250km further east. But now the favourite to win the mayoral elections is a former Yanukvych appointee, Oleksandr Vilkul, who served as governor of the region in 2010-2012 and deputy prime minister under Yanukovych in 2012-2014. Vilkul was widely seen as responsible for repressive measures taken against opposition protestors in Dnipropetrovsk in January-February 2014, in the run-up to Yanukoyvch's ouster.
Vilkil is running for the Opposition Bloc, a successor organisation to Yanukovych's Party of Regions. But Poroshenko, lacking a plausible candidate from his own clique to run in Dnipropetrovsk, is seen preferring Vilkul as mayor to a member of the clan of powerful local oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky.
Kolomoisky's business empire based on Ukraine's largest bank, Privatbank, is headquartered in Dnipropetrovsk, and Kolomoisky became governor of the region following the ouster of Yanukovych, deploying substantial resources to secure the region against the spirit of separatism.
However, in February 2015, Poroshenko fired Kolomoisky as a move against Kolomoisky's hold on state energy companies. Poroshenko has since been at loggerheads with the powerful oligarch, who controls one of Ukraine's largest national TV networks – and Vilkul is now the best-placed candidate to resist Kolomoisky's candidate for city hall, Boris Filatov, with BPP fielding only a weak so-called 'technical' candidate with little chance of winning.
Ukraine's swing constituencies
The same is true of Ukraine's two other 'swing constituencies', whose loyalty to Kyiv is a matter for ongoing bargaining between local elites and central government. The industrial city of Kharkiv and port city of Odesa were both targets of pro-Russian separatists in 2014. But they remained loyal to Kyiv thanks to the same local elites who had previously supported Yanukovych. In both cities the incumbent mayors, former close Yanukvych allies, are likely to be re-elected, with minimal resistance from BPP.
Hennady Kernes, mayor of Kharkiv since 2010, looks likely to gain re-election, according to local polls. Kernes was among the strongest backers of Yanukovych's repressive measures against opposition protestors January-February 2014, as bne IntelliNews reported.
But following Yanukovych's ouster, Kernes resisted a pro-Russian surge in the city only 50km from the Russian border. Apparently as a result of switching sides, he was shot in the back by a sniper in late April 2014, in an attack that nearly cost him his life.
Down by the sea
In the crucial port city of Odesa as well, Poroshenko seems ready to accept the re-election as mayor of the former Yanukovych ally Hennady Trukhanov, in exchange for the city's continued loyalty to Kyiv - less than one year after up to 50 pro-Russian demonstrators died in a fire caused by petrol bombs thrown by Ukrainian nationalists.
BPP is fielding a stronger candidate against Trukhanov than in either Dnipropetrovsk or Kharkiv – but largely at the behest of regional governor Mikheil Saakashvili, former president of Georgia, who as charismatic outsider reformer is less disposed to compromise with existing elite networks. Saakashvili's candidate, former Microsoft lawyer and reform guru Sasha Borovik, who only returned to his native Ukraine in early 2015 to take a short-lived post in the economy ministry, is seen as coming second to Trukhanov, although the elections could go to a second round on November 15.
In Kyiv, by contrast, BPP's incumbent mayor Vitaly Klichko looks like to win, but voting may also go to a second round. In West Ukraine, incumbent mayor and founder of the Samopomich party Andrij Sadoviy looks like a first round shoo-in.
While in developed democracies local elections are contested by national parties, in Ukraine, which lacks national parties with grassroots support, local elections are contested as a rule by rival local power groups. Some of these tactically use the brand of a national party, others may use the brand of a purely local party, and other simply run as independent candidates.
Breaking down the campaign statistics for these elections reveals how weak national parties are at grassroots level. A staggering total of 124 parties are putting up candidates to contest the elections (regional municipal and district councils). However only 9 of these are fielding candidates across the country.
Of these, five are current or former parliamentary parties, such as BPP, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko's Batkvyschina party, Party of Regions successor Opposition Bloc, populist Oleh Lyashko's Radical Party, Samopomich headed by mayor of West Ukraine city of Lviv, Andriy Sadoviy, and nationalist parties Svoboda and Right Sector.
Apart from the national parliamentary parties, there are also a handful of newly created parties or 'political projects', fielding candidates across the country but lacking any strong leaders. Such parties display both huge advertising budgets in order to come from nowhere onto the voters' radar screen, and maximally vague ideologies. These parties are seen as backed by major elite groups and oligarchs as spoiler parties against their rivals, as vehicles to get supporters into local assemblies, and as bargaining chips in inter-elite battles in Kyiv.
Of the real contenders among national parties, BPP leads with 13% support in recent opinion polls, down from its result of just under 22% in October 2014. It is followed closely by Tymoshenko's Batkyvschina, Sadoviy's Samopomich, and Opposition Bloc, all of whom poll at around 11%. The populist Radical Party, the far-right Freedom party and the Right Sector poll at 5-7%.
But for local elections, it is the geographical perspective that is crucial: Opposition Bloc are leading in the eastern and southern regions, traditional stomping grounds of the pro-Russian Party of Regions, while the pro-EU parties of Poroshenko, Sadoviy and Tymoshenko together with the nationalists are dominant in the centre, including Kyiv and West. "The results will thus likely reflect the usual divide between pro-European western and central regions and the more sceptical south and east of the country," believes Otilia Dhand, vice president of Teneo Intelligence.
Local elites intact
But the age-old battle between East and West Ukraine is criss-crossed by an equally old battle – between localities and the centre. Thus, the rest of the 124 parties contesting the elections exist purely on the local level – as vehicles for local elites to reproduce their entrenched power. Emblematic is the 'Maritime Party' of Odesa powerbroker, former national electoral commission head Serhiy Kivalov.
"A significant part of the regional elites traditionally participate in local elections only in their own regions, using little known parties to run for office," says Volodymyr Fesenko, head of Penta thinktank.
The situation is even simpler regarding electoral races for city hall: Half of all candidates for the post of mayor in Ukrainian towns and cities are locals running as independents.
How the unbroken power of local interest groups will impact on plans announced by Poroshenko for constitutional change towards a Poland-style decentralisation, is an open question. Decentralisation is slated for launch in 2016, with subsequent fresh local elections, which will see the chairman of regional councils take over duties as head of the state regional administrations, a key post currently appointed directly by the president.
While the loyalty to Kyiv of local elites in Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv and Odesa caused the failure of the Kremlin's 2014 Novorossiya project to break up Ukraine, it was equally the defection of powerful local elites in Crimea, and Donetsk and Luhansk regions to the Kremlin's cause that caused the loss of Ukraine's territorial integrity, with Russian annexing Crimea and installing puppet rulers in the Donbas region.
These regional elections will therefore be a first litmus test on whether handing power to the regions will unleash reformist energies on the local level, as is hoped by EU backers of the reform, or further entrench anti-reform and corrupt local interests and potentially further erode Ukraine's precarious territorial integrity. Nationalists fearing the latter protested violently against the first reading of the decentralisation bill on August 31, killing 4 policemen outside parliament with a hand grenade explosion.
Whatever the outcome of the local elections, when they are over, parliament will return to considering decentralisation in business as usual mode, without staring down the slit of the electoral urn.
"The current parliamentary impasse over these bills will likely be broken after the local elections in mainland Ukraine have taken place," believes Teneo's Dhand. "Once immediate electoral has abated, this may allow Poroshenko to strike a deal with the Opposition Bloc or independent MPs to support the legislation," she adds.