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What's at Stake in Ukraine's Upcoming Elections? - 2002-03-29

Ukrainians go to the polls Sunday in parliamentary elections that follow a tough and dirty campaign. At stake are the future of long-awaited economic reforms and the country's political legacy, with politicians already eyeing presidential elections scheduled for 2004.

When Ukrainians go to the polls Sunday, they will have choices. More than 30 political parties and alliances are contesting the 450 seats in the country's national parliament, but only a half-dozen or so are expected to get enough votes to meet the four-percent threshold to make it into the legislature.

The main players are the "For a United Ukraine" party, which includes a number of government ministers and supports President Leonid Kuchma. Party leader Volodymyr Lytvyn says he is confident of a resounding victory at the polls, and analysts generally agree the party will likely win the largest number of seats in parliament.

There is also the "Our Ukraine" party, composed of nationalist, centrist, and right-wing factions and led by a popular ex-prime minister, Viktor Yushchenko. The "Our Ukraine" party is widely expected to come in second in Sunday's race.

And, then there is the Communist Party, which many analysts are already putting in third place. Among the outside candidates is the controversial and well-known businesswoman Julia Tymoshenko, who once served as deputy prime minister under President Kuchma, but has since become one of his most bitter opponents.

Arkady Moshes is a senior analyst in the Institute for European Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. He says Sunday's elections are really a prelude to Ukraine's 2004 presidential election with politicians jostling for position to succeed President Kuchma.

"These elections have already become a test case for potential presidential candidates. It's actually pretty clear now that Mr. Lytvyn, who could be considered a likely runner for 2004, has proved to be a pretty unsuccessful politician and poor campaigner and he is unlikely to become [President] Kuchma's successor. But, who will become Kuchma's successor will depend on whether this or that person will be successful during this elections and how he would organize his power base in the parliament after the elections," Mr. Moshes says.

The other big topic is economic reforms. Many of the reforms once promised by President Kuchma have stagnated and reformist Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko was ousted from his post last year because of opposition in parliament to his plans for change.

Ukraine analyst Arkady Moshes says major economic reforms are not likely in the new parliament. He believes powerful business interests within the president's party will have the support of the smaller parties, including the Communists, to prevent any radical change.

"Since Mr. Yushchenko is not going to have the majority in the parliament, this parliament will not do much in terms of reforms," he says.

Predictions are that voter turnout will be fairly high on Sunday. But, says Ukrainian journalist Yevgeny Tsyganok, voter participation should not be mistaken for enthusiasm for the country's politicians or the dirty election campaign they have waged.

"Everyone seems tired of this campaign, which is believed to be the toughest and most controversial in the history of Ukrainian democracy. It was bitter and filled with accusations of the political rivals. Ukrainians on the streets don't care a lot about the vote because they feel alienated from politics. Their agenda is to make ends meet, to survive," Mr. Tsyganok says.

While average Ukrainians have seen their living standards drop, many of their politicians have been mired in corruption scandals. During the campaign, opposition politicians complained of harassment and said they had been denied access to the national media. There have been reports of pressure being put on journalists to support one candidate or another. And, Mr. Yushchenko has accused parties loyal to President Kuchma of preparing to use what he termed "Soviet-style" counting methods to rig Sunday's vote.

Some western nations also have expressed concerns that Sunday's vote may not be free and fair. The European Union has said the election will be a test of Ukraine's commitment to democracy.