Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych looks set for victory in a national election this weekend, despite his jailed rival, former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, calling on voters to stop an imminent “dictatorship.”
Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions and a union of opposition forces backing Tymoshenko held final public rallies on Friday in the capital Kiev ahead of today’s poll for a new parliament.
No opinion polls have been published since Oct. 18, under an official information blackout. Earlier polls showed Regions leading the joint opposition, which includes Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna (“Fatherland”) party, and a liberal party headed by world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko.
Yanukovych’s party leads, despite the government’s unpopularity because of tax and pensions policies and its failure to stamp out corruption.
The former Soviet republic also looks isolated after rows with the US and the EU over Tymoshenko, and with Russia over gas.
There is also the question of what judgement international observers will hand down after monitoring the election.
Ukraine’s economy is vulnerable to falling demand for steel and other exports while the IMF froze lending last year when Kiev balked at painful reform. Commentators nevertheless expect Yanukovych’s pro-business Regions, bankrolled by wealthy industrialists and able to draw on state and regional facilities and resources, to hold on to a majority in the 450-seat assembly.
“We have rebuilt the country, we have achieved stability,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, formal leader of the Regions, told a rally.
Azarov, who heads the Regions’ ticket, was joined by several other party leaders and a Ukrainian pop star who is No. 2 on the party list. His government has raised public sector wages and pensions ahead of the vote, recovering some of the lost support at the cost of widening the budget deficit.
The Regions have promised to make Russian an official state language alongside Ukrainian — a move aimed at winning back disenchanted supporters in Russian-speaking areas of the east and south, but alienated voters elsewhere.
The opposition has warned that a Regions victory will usher in authoritarian rule and policies tailored to further enrich business “oligarchs” and Yanukovych’s trusted inner circle.
Tymoshenko, 51, a political firebrand in her heyday, on Thursday called on voters to throw out the Regions, warning Yanukovych could “establish a dictatorship and will never again give up power by peaceful means.”
Her lieutenant Oleh Turchinov opened the rally on Friday, which took place just 500m away from that of the Regions, but was much more sombre, by reading out her same address.
Another Batkivshchyna leader, Anatoly Hrytsenko, acknowledged the Regions’ lead, but urged his supporters to reach out to undecided voters.
“We can break their ratings and their plans. Twenty percent of voters have yet to decide who to vote for,” he said.
Klitschko has pledged to work to stamp out endemic corruption in the country of 46 million. He and his UDAR (“Punch”) party, which has surged in ratings, are a wild card in the poll. He has turned his back on any alliance with the Regions and says he will side with the united opposition led by former Ukrainian minister of economy Arseny Yatsenyuk.
However, the fact Klitschko declined to sign a pre-election coalition agreement with Yatsenyuk-led forces has engendered suspicion among the opposition.
Of the 450 seats in the single-chamber parliament, 225 will be filled through voting by party lists — where the voter casts a ballot for a party, which presents a list of candidates.
The other half will be decided by voting for individual candidates on a first-past-the-post basis — a feature reintroduced by the Regions that is assumed to favor the party.
International monitors include a 700-member team from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
The OSCE will deliver its verdict tomorrow. A positive assessment could improve the international image of Yanukovych before Ukraine takes over the chair of the human rights and security body in January.