Ukraine’s ruling party likely to wobble toward win

October 26, 2012

Dismay with Ukraine’s ruling party has reached this eastern city, its strongest redoubt, yet the party is nonetheless on the verge of cementing its grip on power in Sunday’s parliamentary elections.

This is coal-mining territory, Russian-speaking and industry-laden. It is President Viktor Yanukovych’s home town and home to those who have prospered enormously during his presidency, known throughout Ukraine as The Family. Here, there is little but disdain for the leaders of the 2004 Orange Revolution, which thwarted Yanukovych’s first bid for the top job after widespread voter intimidation and fraud.

Here, he capped his wobbly comeback in 2010, when he took the presidency. Once, his Party of Regions could have counted on 70 percent of the vote in Donetsk.

Those days are over. Polls suggest the party has about 30 percent support here now — but that will be enough.

A divided opposition, a public disillusioned with politics and the opportunity for some serious vote-rigging — all of this helps to overcome the handicap of paltry public respect for Yanukovych and his political allies.

Yanukovych has shown signs of wanting to follow the authoritarian path of his Russian neighbor, President Vladimir Putin, or even Belarusan President Alexander Lukashenko, and critics warn that he will try to use the election results toward that end.

“This is the man with the whip,” one supporter, Andrei Udovenko, approvingly pointed out at a rally Friday evening.

But Ukraine is facing a big squeeze between Russia, over control of the natural gas business, and the United States and Europe, over human rights — and warming to the West would cost the president and his oligarch allies a lot less, financially, than surrendering their interests to the Kremlin.

His two years in power have taught ordinary Ukrainians not to expect much from Yanukovych.

“Nothing has been done to help the coal miners,” said Anatoly Akimochkin, a leader of the Independent Trade Union of Miners of Ukraine. There’s a feeling of “betrayal,” said Yevgeny Stratievsky, who writes for a political Web site. People are dismayed by corruption, which sees the city paying double the market rate for nursery school lunches and about $2 more per gallon of gasoline than the pump price, said Yevgeny Senekhin, an activist with a group called the Democratic Alliance.

Nonetheless, the party should do well here Sunday. Even at 30 percent, it’s still in first place. (It is polling in the mid-20s nationwide — also enough to be in first place.) The two main opposition parties have made only a token effort in eastern Ukraine. Habit will likely keep many otherwise disgruntled voters in the Party of Regions fold. Some may turn to the Communists in protest — but they’re allies of Yanukovych.

And vote fraud is widely expected, despite the presence of thousands of Ukrainian and foreign observers. One poll found that fewer than 9 percent of Ukrainians think the elections will be honest. Half the parliament will be chosen by party list and half by district — a system that has lent itself to a considerable amount of manipulation. The Party of Regions is likely to do especially well at the district level, where opponents can be intimidated and fewer will be watching.

Television is in the hands of Yanukovych’s allies. And the government hasn’t been shy about using its resources to boost the party.

Final rallies for party faithful

On Friday, here and in four other cities, the party gathered its faithful for final rallies. Organized groups flocked to Lenin Square, where, under the gaze of a muscular Vladi­mir Lenin statue, they watched dance ensembles and singers and televised reports from around the country.

“The party has ensured stability in Ukraine,” said Alina Volkova, who came with a group of colleagues. Moments later, a speaker onstage boomed out, “Thank God the times of change are over.”

He was referring to the aftermath of the Orange Revolution. One of its leaders, Yulia Tymoshenko, who became prime minister, now sits in prison. Her term in office is remembered as a dark time in Donetsk.

But American and European politicians have denounced her prosecution, on charges of misuse of office, and some have proposed sanctions on the Yanukovych regime. If his party does well Sunday, and he subsequently overplays his hand, a chilling of relations with the West could leave Ukraine with nowhere to turn but Russia.

On Thursday, opposition politicians denounced Yanukovych’s government for allowing Russian agents to allegedly kidnap a protest leader who was seeking political asylum in Kiev, the capital, and hustle him across the border.

Yet few of the president’s oligarch allies would relish the thought of an embrace by the Kremlin, and the inevitable loss of their businesses to Russian counterparts.

Tymoshenko’s followers have joined the United Opposition, which is vying alongside a party called UDAR, an acronym that means punch. UDAR is led by Vitali Klitschko, a champion heavyweight boxer. He’s well known and many find him appealing, but analysts say he doesn’t have much of an organization.

The two opposition parties have tried not to compete with each other. That’s how a candidate named Vladimir Berezin found himself in the cold. A popular environmental and human rights activist, he had been recruited by the United Opposition to run against the director of a pig-processing plant here.

The plant is owned by Vice Premier Boris Kolesnikov. Berezin’s supporters went to one rally wearing pig masks and unfurled a sign that said: “Your home. Our toilet.”

Then, two weeks ago, Berezin was off the ballot. He’d been sacrificed, ostensibly in favor of the UDAR candidate — but he’s sure his party pulled its support under pressure from Kolesnikov.

It’s a testament to the murkiness of Ukrainian politics. None of the parties has any particular ideology, beyond self-enrichment.

Widespread cynicism

The nearly universal cynicism works in the ruling party’s favor. The most brazen cheating is likely to be met with a shrug.

Even the coal miners, who were once, in the last years of the Soviet Union, a force to be reckoned with, no longer scare the politicians. There are only a quarter as many in this region as there once were. On average, they’re considerably older than the workforce of 20 years ago, and, most important, they’re thoroughly turned off by politics.

At election time, Akimochkin said, “everyone becomes interested in their problems, especially the Party of Regions. It promises paradise. But all of the promises, of all the parties, have nothing to do with reality.”

Voters expect candidates to hand out goodies — school supplies or microwave ovens. Actually participating as citizens, or giving contributions, is unheard of.

“The existing parties have discredited themselves,” Senekhin said. “A lot of time must pass before people believe again in one or the other political power. We’re not ready.”

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