Roman Olearchyk in Kyiv -
Ukraine's politicians have campaigned hard in recent days to win over increasingly disillusioned voters in an election that's expected to be won or lost by a slim margin. It's proven to be hard work - many voters long ago tuned out the incessant fighting that has paralysed the country's politics.
Ukraine's pro-Western president, Viktor Yushchenko, and his nemesis from the Orange Revolution, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, stopped off ahead of the September 30 polls in the port town of Odessa - renowned for its humour, architecture and mixed population of Russians, Ukrainians and Jews. Few, though, attended the political rallies. With the exception of small crowds that included students who were paid the equivalent of $10 to hold flags, most residents seemed apathetic to the big vote ahead, preferring instead to attend to daily chores or stroll down the city's picturesque streets enjoying the sunny weather.
"We don't really pay attention to the politics in Kiev," says a waitress at a cafe in Odessa. "Odessa is very far away. It doesn't really affect us. We have our own lives and problems to deal with."
Despite the political paralysis, the economy has grown steadily, but living standards remain low for many citizens and prices have risen sharply on basic goods. It's no surprise then that nearly a third of voters are undecided, not likely to vote, or leaning towards voting against all.
Polls predict a majority of citizens will vote, but long gone is the emotion and excitement of the huge political rallies that reached a climax with the Orange Revolution of 2004. Back then, Yushchenko's epic victory over Yanukovych split Ukraine on an east-west axis. In the following years, Russian-speakers have stuck with Yanukovych, enabling him to make a remarkable comeback as premier in 2006 following an inconclusive parliamentary vote, only to be locked into a year-long wrestling match over power with the president. Tensions reached boiling point this spring when Yushchenko, in a bold move, dissolved the parliament in order to, in his words, prevent usurpation of power by Yanukovych's governing coalition.
In contrast to Odessa, tension in Ukraine's capital Kyiv has risen in recent days as the various political leaders accused each other of plotting massive election fraud.
Yanukovych's party has promised that his supporters would take to the streets en masse if his victory is stolen from him by fraud, in a repeat of the Orange Revolution, only this time it would be a Blue Revolution (blue and white being the main colours of his Party of the Region's flag). Promising to copy the success of the Orange Revolution (in which he was the main loser), Yanukovych's party has taken over Kyiv's main square, setting up a massive stage for rallies and tents guarded by about 100 supporters. Yanukovich's party is expected to bus supporters from eastern Ukraine to the capital to stage either a massive victory celebration, or protests.
Polls predict Yanukovych's Party of the Region's will lead with 30-35% support, about the same level it got in the 2006 parliamentary elections. His party, however, claims it has a chance of getting at least 40%, which would ensure that the governing coalition is not ejected from power.
With the two Viktors at loggerheads, fiery opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko - who was Yushchenko's ally in the Orange Revolution - has systematically exploited their feud. Her support base has steadily grown and many yet-undecided protest voters are expected to cast their ballots in her favour. She could just prove the real "Viktor" in these elections with a surprisingly strong vote. Polls show Tymoshenko could improve on last year's 22% result, tallying 25-28% this time.
Trailing in third again, support for Yushchenko's Our Ukraine has been flat since last year's poll, when they received 14% of the vote. Polls show the president's bloc could this year get 10-14%.
Smaller fringe parties, including pro-Russian and ultra-nationalist groups, might not pass the 3% cut-off, but could capture key votes in a contest where one percentage point could make all the difference.
Like most of Ukraine's leading parties, Yanukovych's Party of the Region's started its election campaign back in August with a populist theme promising to raise salaries, pensions and boost cash payouts to parents for every baby born. As the vote neared and its support remained flat, the party resorted again to divisive agendas from the Orange revolution days. Yanukovych's goal is to win back old voters by polarizing the electorate on an east-west axis.
With the help of top US political advisors, Yanukovych has undergone a major makeover. His oratory skills have improved dramatically; his answers to journalists' questions are short and stick to the message of the day; and most of his messages are today positive, rather than negative. His voice hoarse from the campaign, Yanukovych pledged in Odessa that a referendum his party will sponsor would block Yushchenko's plans for membership in Nato and grant the Russian language official status.
"We need to unite once and for all saying 'no' to this Orange horde... to eradicate them from politics," Yanukovych said standing alongside Sergey Kivalov, a controversial figure. Kivalov, an Odessa native and legislator, headed the Central Election Committee in 2004 during the allegedly fraudulent presidential vote in 2004. He and a group of industrialists, including billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, have remained dedicated Yanukovych supporters.
The referendum on Nato and the Russian language has infuriated the president. In recent interviews, Yushchenko has described the referendum as a move that runs contrary to state interests. He said it was a "last ditch effort" to win votes, and expressed deep regret that big business tycoons such as Akhmetov have backed the divisive referendum. The president has also recently expressed deep regret in his decision last year to accept Yanukovych as prime minister after inconclusive parliamentary elections. "It was a big mistake... I was naive," he said.
Since returning as prime minister, Yanukovych's governing coalition has effectively derailed Yushchenko's speedy Western-integration agenda.
In a move of desperation, the president teamed up again with his erstwhile Orange revolution ally, Tymoshenko, an ambitious politician who has her eyes on the presidency. The results of these elections are expected to play a major role in political jockeying ahead of the 2009 presidential campaign.
When the dust has settled
Election watchdogs fear sizable vote rigging could resurface, possibly to levels that would challenge the legitimacy of the vote. They also expect the election results to be challenged in Ukraine's corrupt courts by the losing side. Weeks of lawsuits, jockeying and intrigue could follow the vote.
While the camps of Yushchenko and Tymoshenko have promised to form a coalition hours after the votes are counted, most expect that coalition talks could drag on for weeks - certainly as long as the vote tallies are disputed.
"The political campaign has brought no clarity on the likely outcome," say analysts at investment bank Renaissance Capital. "The odds are that after the votes are counted, the process of building a coalition will prove long and complicated."
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