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Ukrainians Prepare to Elect New Parliament

  • Lisa McAdams

Ukrainians vote for a new parliament Sunday - a critical election that could change the nation's political orientation from West to East. A total of 45 political parties, or blocs, will compete, but the race focusses on the parties of Ukraine's three main political leaders who captured the nation's attention during the so-called Orange Revolution of 2004.

Unlike the presidential elections in 2004, which were marked by mass protests, multiple court appeals and even a candidate's poisoning, this year's parliamentary elections promise to be the most democratic since Ukraine gained independence in 1991.

The race also promises to highlight much greater political participation than ever before, as most previous elections in Ukraine were dominated by members of the Communist Party of the former Soviet Union.

In the final hours of campaigning, which draws to a close late Friday, local television was awash with a flurry of campaign ads reflecting a broad spectrum of candidates from nationalists to conservatives, to pro-Russian and pro-Western reform parties.

Most election-watchers agree the race is between parties of the three main players of Ukraine's so-called Orange Revolution. They are President Viktor Yushchenko and his Our Ukraine Party, the bloc of his former prime minister and once closest political ally, Yulia Timoshenko, and former pro-Russia Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of The Regions.

But what a difference a year makes. Latest polls indicate that Yanukovych, the big loser in 2004, who saw his initial win annulled by Ukraine's Supreme Court due to fraud, leading in the polls. His Party of The Regions is expected to take up to 30 percent of the vote in Sunday's elections.

The polls also show incumbent President Yushchenko in a real battle for second place with Timoshenko's forces, following the two party's bitter split last September, during which the president fired Timoshenko from her post as prime minister. Each of their parties is projected to win from 17 to 20 percent of the vote.

Kiev-based independent political analyst Ivan Lozowy tells VOA that Yushchenko is in a tight spot due to his inability to capitalize on the huge political mandate he was given by Ukraine's people during the mass protests of 2004."The popular demonstrations ushered him into the presidency.

"Unfortunately, overall expectations following the Orange Revolution of 2004 have not been fulfilled, by and large, and there is a lot of disappointment," said Lozowyt. "There is quite a bit I think even almost anger at the fact that the situation has not changed much. There have been very few reforms in terms of the corruption that is very endemic in Ukrainian society."

Lozowy says the president's team has also been hard hit by the very public split from former ally Timoshenko, who remains one of the most popular politicians in Ukraine.

That split has left many former supporters of the pro-Western Orange Revolution casting about for a candidate. Just two days away from the election, up to 20 percent of Ukraine's voters are undecided.

Others, like this middle-aged factory-worker, have switched their allegiance.

The man tells VOA he used to have a lot of trust in President Yushchenko. But he says Yushchenko has shown himself to be "flexible," in his political positions like his former rival Yanukovych. So, the man says he now has more faith that Yulia Timoshenko will continue the pro-western reform path promised during Ukraine's Orange Revolution.

The man says he is also worried that a win by Yanukovych and his forces will mean an end to the dream of democratic reform that brought hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians out into the streets for weeks in 2004.

The stakes of Sunday's election are especially high. The candidate with the majority of votes will gain the most political leverage in parliament, forming a coalition that will determine the make up of Ukraine's next government.

That is yet another difference in this year's elections. Due to constitutional changes agreed to during the political revolution, the parliament now has the power to pick the prime minister, rather than the president.

Neighboring Russia is also offering much less overt support during this year's election, after being accused by some in Ukraine and the west of heavy-handed meddling into Ukraine's affairs in 2004.

President Putin was the first leader to congratulate Yanukovych on his win, before the presidential race was even formally declared. That greeting later came to haunt the Russian president when the election results were annulled.

But if current projections are borne out, President Putin could be vindicated, as candidate Yanukovych appears on the brink of a major political come-back fueled, in part, by his pledge to return Ukraine to a more Russian orientation.

The United States and Europe have said they will work with whatever party emerges the ultimate winner in Sunday's election.

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