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.