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Ukraine elections could spawn chaos

Ukrainian voters are in a foul mood as the field of 18 candidates campaigns before Sunday's vote.

A dog plays in the snow near apartment blocks covered in campaign posters of presidential candidate and former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich in Kiev, Jan. 12, 2010. (Konstantin Chernichkin/Reuters)

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.