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Voters in Ukraine Go to Polls, Express Frustrations with Democracy

Voters in Ukraine went to the polls on September 30th in a special parliamentary election, but many cast ballots only to express doubt that anything will change. They complain of Ukrainian political gridlock and pin the blame on false promises, too many political parties, and personality-driven campaigns. VOA Correspondent Peter Fedynsky examined these issues during a recent visit to Kyiv.

The September 30th parliamentary election was Ukraine's third general election in as many years. Voters note that the elections not only cost tens of millions of dollars, but have also resulted in series of failed parliamentary coalitions.

Many voters said the most recent election would not change anything, among them, Alyona Kucherenko, who is raising her first child in Kyiv. She says, "Because all of the politicians promise the same things in every campaign, but they are not going to change anything."

Kucherenko may be surprised to learn that behind the scenes, some politicians recognize the need for change but also realize reforms will not be easy. So instead, politicians seemingly compete for Kucherenko's vote the easy way: Populism! In Ukraine that often means: Promise voters simple, often regional, solutions to complex national problems.

Oleksiy Haran, political science professor at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, one of Ukraine's leading universities, says populism is a feature of democratic societies, as opposed to authoritarian regimes, where rulers are not accountable to the needs and feelings of people.

"When we have these elections and election cycles, the government cannot concentrate on economic reforms over a four to five year period; this limits the possibilities for reform. So I think Ukraine, in the political realm, faces many difficulties, perhaps some unforeseen events. Nonetheless, I think the democratic process in Ukraine is on the move," Haran said.

Two of the political forces that won seats in the Ukrainian parliament are named after individuals, BYuT, or the Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko, and the Lytvyn Bloc led by former speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn. Two other major parties are also closely identified with personalities -- President Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine Party and the Regions Party of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.

Ukraine's three leading politicians, the two Viktors and Yulia, inspired a recent magazine poster, which suggests voter discontent with an election that seemed to last forever, and with individuals who could dominate Ukrainian politics for many years to come.

Hryhoriy Nemirya, deputy for international affairs in the Tymoshenko Bloc, comments on Ukraine's personality-driven politics. Nemirya says, "There is a problem here. But if you look carefully, there is also potential advantage. Because we hear of a leadership deficit in the United States and Europe that can be filled by politicians who are sufficiently strong and confident, and have personal visions of their country that can inspire the support of many people."

Nemirya says the next step in Ukraine's democratic process is to fill the personal visions of politicians with political and strategic substance.

After the Soviet collapse in 1991, about 150 Ukrainian political organizations took the place of the Communist Party, the only legal political organization in the USSR. Many have since disintegrated, and on September 30th only five crossed the minimum three percent threshold to win seats in parliament. Among the losers was the Socialist Party.

Representative Mykhailo Koropatnyk says small parties should join forces with larger ones. "A sense of responsibility and patriotism should prompt these parties to unite; unite around those parties that have authority and those with whom they share similar programs and ideologies. And then, through political convergence, they will not be lost, but rather they will gain the ability to realize their potential," he says.

Public opinion polls indicate that Ukrainian voters do not consider divisive populist issues rose during election campaigns to be top priorities. These include Ukraine's official language, the country's association with NATO, and church politics. Ukrainians, however, tend to agree on such problems as corruption, education, and health care, and want their newly elected parliament to address them.