May 23, 2013
Ukraine votes, Yanukovich's party expected to keep majority
Ukrainians voted in an election that President Viktor Yanukovich's pro-business ruling party seemed likely to win, but it may now face a re-energized opposition which has promised to fight growing authoritarianism and corruption.
With Yanukovich's main rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, in jail and with the West seeing the poll as a test of Ukraine's commitment to democracy, interest will focus on the judgment that international monitors will hand down on Monday.
The former Soviet republic of 46 million is more isolated internationally than it has been for years. Tymoshenko's continued imprisonment has put it at odds with the United States and European Union, while Russia turns a deaf ear to Kiev's calls for cheaper gas.
At home, the government's popularity has been hit by tax and pensions policies and a failure to stamp out corruption, prompting it to shy away from painful reforms that could secure much-needed IMF lending to shore up an export-driven economy.
Despite this and growing apathy among an electorate tired of political bickering, opinion polls have shown Yanukovich's Party of the Regions leading the joint opposition, which includes Tymoshenko's Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party, and a liberal party headed by boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko.
Commentators expect Regions, bankrolled by industrialists and drawing on state resources, to keep a majority in the 450-seat assembly with support possibly from communists and some independents.
"We have rebuilt the country, we have achieved stability," Mykola Azarov, prime minister and formal leader of the Regions, told a close-of-campaigning rally.
Even if it wins, Regions faces a tougher time in parliament.
Klitschko, the WBC world heavyweight champion, who heads the UDAR (Punch) party, says he will team up with the opposition led by former economy minister Arseny Yatsenyuk to fight corruption which they say deters entrepreneurial spirit and foreign investment.
From her jail in Kharkiv in Ukraine's northeast, Tymoshenko issued a statement that Yanukovich, who comes up for re-election in 2015, would set up a "dictatorship and never again give up power by peaceful means".
Tymoshenko was jailed for seven years last year for abuse of office relating to a 2009 gas deal with Russia which she made when she was prime minister. The Yanukovich government says the agreement saddled Ukraine with an enormous price for gas supplies.
Voters' frustration with both the current and the previous cabinets plays into the hands of Klitschko as a newcomer.
"I voted for UDAR as it is a new force," said Valentyn, 45, as he walked out of a polling station in Kiev. "I am sick of the old ones. Something needs to be changed."
"We have seen some parties in power and others as well," said Tetyana, 27, referring to Batkivshchyna and the Regions. "We have seen the results."
Even in Donetsk, Yanukovich's main stronghold in the east of the country, many voters said they were disillusioned by the record of the government.
"I voted for the Regions Party but simply because it is the lesser of the evils. I can't say I am a great fan of the Regions, but all the rest are worse," said 58-year-old Viktor Grigoryev, a head of section in the construction sector.
"They (the Regions) have the experience of working in posts of responsibility and have proven they can do things," he added.
Viktoriya, aged 45, who works in the state housing sector, said she had also voted for the Regions and applauded the development during the June Euro-2012 soccer championship.
"They built an airport in Donetsk, carried out the Euro football here. They added to my Mum's pension. All the 'orange' people used to do was talk but do nothing," she said referring to previous governments of the jailed Tymoshenko.