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Ukraine votes in key democracy test

Kiev: Ukraine voted in legislative polls on Sunday that are being seen by the West as a test of democracy under President Viktor Yanukovych following the jailing last year of his top political foe. 

The ex-Soviet nation of 46 million people — nestled between the European Union and Russia and still undecided about whose alliance it values most — is holding its first vote since jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko lost to Yanukovych in a bitter presidential race in February 2010.

The firebrand 2004 Orange Revolution leader was put behind bars less than two years later on abuse of power charges brought by Yanukovych’s Regions Party that both Tymoshenko and Western nations regard as retribution by the president.

The election for the 450-seat parliament has also been shaken up by the political emergence of boxing heavyweight star Vitali Klitschko and recently retired football super-striker Andriy Shevchenko.

Ukraine’s election has been shaken up by the involvement of boxer Vitali Klitschko and footballer Andriy Shevchenko © AFP


Ahead of Sunday’s vote, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton issued a rare joint letter calling on Yanukovych to prove his democratic credentials to the world.

“Important steps now have to be taken by the Ukrainian government to fulfil its full potential,” the open letter said.

“Ukraine’s parliamentary elections at the end of this month will be an important bellwether for the state of these (democratic) institutions. At the moment, there are some worrying trends.”

Opinion polls suggest that Yanukovych’s alliance with the Communist Party and a top centrist politician will secure a narrow victory over Tymoshenko’s opposition bloc.

But in hot pursuit in third is the UDAR (Punch) party headed by world boxing champion Klitschko — and a long-mooted alliance with the opposition bloc could swing the parliamentary majority away from the ruling party.

“I am confident that we will be able to gather all the opposition forces around us in the new parliament,” the reigning heavyweight champion boldly predicted in an interview with a German newspaper on the eve of the vote.

Ukraine is holding its first election since Yulia Tymoshenko lost to Viktor Yanukovych in a bitter contest in 2010 © AFP


A merger between UDAR and the Tymoshenko bloc could give the opposition a parliamentary majority and further limit the political options of Yanukovych — already under strong pressure from the West.

Tymoshenko, who has been behind bars since August last year, urged her supporters not to boycott the election on account of her absence and vote in large numbers “to help overcome ballot rigging” on the part of the ruling elite.

“Every one of us has to fight this dictatorship the best they can,” Tymoshenko said in a statement on her official website.

Half of the 450 seats in the new Verkhovna Rada chamber of parliament will be filled by voters casting ballots for parties that have to clear a five percent minimum vote threshold. The rest will be filled by individual candidates who must win their districts.

The question of whether Yanukovych will lose his ruling majority depends largely on whether Klitschko — assuming the dominant role of kingmaker — follows through on his promise to work with Tymoshenko’s team.

The president’s ruling party is expected to secure the most seats and can also rely on the future support of Communists.

The Soviet-era leftist alliance is expected to finish in fourth place with about 11 percent of the vote and also join forces with a small centrist bloc of a prominent former parliament speaker.

Polls suggest Yanukovych’s alliance with the Communist Party and a top centrist politician will secure a narrow victory © AFP


Klitschko has insisted that he can work with Tymoshenko’s alliance. But he has fought bitterly with other members of the potential coalition and has thus far refused to sign any formal agreement forming an official anti-Yanukovych bloc.

The towering boxer’s first steps in national politics have made a much bigger impression on voters than those of fellow sports star “Sheva” Shevchenko — a hero not only in Ukraine but also in Italy where he starred for eight years for AC Milan.

The inspirational former forward is the deputy head of the Ukraine Forward! movement that polls show picking up no more than three percent of the vote — a miscalculation for a newcomer to Ukraine’s bruising political world.

This would put Shevchenko’s personal ambitions on hold while adding fire to those of Klitschko and his corruption-fighting UDAR group.

“The results could shape the presidential ambitions of the incumbent as well as the leaders of the disparate opposition ahead of the 2015 (presidential) election,” the US-based IHS Global Insight said.

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