Ukraine elections could spawn chaos

UPDATE: Exit polls suggest that no candidate has won an outright victory in Ukraine's first presidential election since the Orange Revolution five years ago. The polls put opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych first and current PM Yulia Tymoshenko second. The two politicians, who were on opposing sides five years ago, will face a run-off on Feb. 7, if the results are confirmed. Current President Viktor Yushchenko has been eliminated.

KIEV, Ukraine — Incredibly, Ukraine’s political chaos and dysfunction could become even worse. 

Voters go to the polls on Sunday to select their first president since the 2004 Orange Revolution — a period that has seen the optimism and general good vibrations of five years ago turn into widespread cynicism and anger, as political infighting, corruption, government deadlock and economic recession brought the country to a standstill. 

Ukrainians and interested observers alike hope for a clear-cut winner who will then be able to marshal the levers of state to extract this key post-Soviet, eastern European nation of 46 million — equivalent in size to Spain — from its political and economic morass.

But the elections may in fact deliver not a clear-cut mandate, but instead more confusion.

The prospect of a protracted political struggle could not come at a worse time. Ukraine’s economy contracted by more than 15 percent last year, the government is having trouble paying its bills as its financial resources are dwindling rapidly and the National Bank is in danger of defaulting on hundreds of millions of dollars in short-term bonds. Meanwhile Ukraine’s credibility in Western capitals is at an all-time low, and relations with foreign institutions like the International Monetary Fund, which loaned Kiev some $16 billion last year, are strained.

The electorate is in a foul mood, with many voters voicing dissatisfaction with all their choices. Many say that they still have not made up their mind who to vote for, or will simply stay at home Sunday. In a “pox on all their houses” gesture, some will cast their ballots against all the candidates. The heroes of the Orange Revolution have fallen low, and none more than President Viktor Yushchenko: now predicted to win less than 5 percent of the vote, he is all but relegated to political oblivion. 

Two candidates from a field of 18 have emerged as the front-runners in Sunday’s vote: Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yanukovich, the eastern Ukrainian party boss who was the Kremlin’s preferred candidate in 2004. But even this has not led to a straightforward match-up.

Neither candidate seems to have the necessary 50 percent to win in the first round — Yanukovich is predicted to win just over 30 percent of the vote, while Tymoshenko is trailing in most polls with about 20 percent. A recent poll by the Russian state-run polling agency VTsIOMA now predicts that businessman-turned-contender Sergey Tigipko will just edge out Tymoshenko, with 14 percent to her 13.

A second round of voting is slated for Feb. 7, should no candidate win outright. Although some polls give Yanukovich the edge in the more likely head-to-head match up with Tymoshenko, many analysts are nevertheless hesitant to rule out the iron-willed, charismatic and golden-braided prime minister. Tymoshenko’s “negatives” are indeed high: She is the politician most closely linked with the country’s economic plight and is viewed by many as heavily corrupt and driven purely by ambition. But it may turn out that when people are given a choice between the two, Yanukovich may be even more unpopular. Voters who cast their ballots for alternative candidates in the first round may switch to Tymoshenko in the second, rather than see the wooden, business-as-usual Yanukovich — who is widely viewed as a front for a number of the country’s top oligarchs — triumph. 

“Saying who will win is like trying to predict from reading coffee grounds,” said Yuri Yakiymenko, director of political and legal programs at the non-partisan Razumkov think tank in Kiev. 

Already candidates are warning of vote rigging and social disruptions by their competitors, indicating that the post-election period could be turbulent. Tymoshenko told a government meeting that the Yanukovich camp was organizing overwhelming fraud. “Such monstrous falsification didn't even happen in 2004,” she said, referring to the allegations of vote rigging that sparked the Orange Revolution’s mass street protests. 

President Viktor Yushchenko — who was Tymoshenko’s comrade-in-arms during the Orange Revolution only to transform into her bitterest foe afterward — claimed for his part this week that the prime minister was preparing widespread civil disobedience to overturn the official outcome. Yushchenko is discredited and despised unlike any other major Ukrainian politician, but he may still be able to fulfill a role as spoiler to Tymoshenko’s ambitions. 

“The main threat to the results of the election, to their objectivity, comes from the candidature of Tymoshenko," Yushchenko told a press conference. “I am convinced she is ready to launch any social action and disregard any result of the election and this person will value neither laws, nor democracy, nor the supreme decision of voters.” 

But even if one person wins without being challenged post-election, the political volatility may continue. Many observers anticipate that Tymoshenko would introduce a more centralized, controlling regime, which would crack down on oligarchs and make changes to the constitution. This will produce tensions and a backlash, analysts say, but in the end it may produce a stable political system. If Yanukovich is victorious — even though he is the candidate that seems the least reform-oriented — he will still have to deal with a parliament dominated by Tymoshenko’s political bloc. 

“In the case that Yanukovich wins, the political instability will continue and maybe even become worse,” said Volodymyr Fesenko of the Penta Center for Applied Political Studies in Kiev.