Ukraine election: free, fair and headed for a run-off

KIEV, Ukraine — Ukrainians brace themselves for a bitter second act of their national political soap opera, as Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine’s firebrand prime minister, and Viktor Yanukovich, the opposition leader from the country’s east who suffered defeat five years ago, collected the most votes but failed to deal a knock-out blow in presidential voting on Sunday. 

One day after the fractious, recession-wracked ex-Soviet nation went to the polls to select a leader for the next five years, results showed that, as had been anticipated, no candidate received the necessary 50 percent of the vote needed to win outright. 

With more than 95 percent of the ballots counted, Yanukovich won about 35 percent and Tymoshenko 25 percent, the country’s Central Election Commission said, in voting that was free of any major violations. 

Both candidates claimed that they were now well-placed to prevail in the Feb. 7 run-off. Tymoshenko said that she would seek endorsements from those contenders who finished just behind her — namely ex-Central Bank head Sergey Tigipko, with 13 percent, and former parliament speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk, with 7 percent. 

“Yanukovych's hand will never be placed on the Bible to take the presidential oath,” Tymoshenko said. She claimed results showed that the combined “democratic forces” made up more 60 percent of the electorate. Tigipko and Yatsenyuk so far have said that they will refrain from backing either of the remaining candidates. 

Yanukovich for his part said that the voting marked the “end to Orange power” — a reference to the 2004 Orange Revolution that took place the last time Ukrainians chose a president. Yanukovich originally triumphed in those elections, but massive street protests against perceived falsifications forced another round of voting and resulted in the victory of Viktor Yushchenko — an anti-Russian former Central Bank head whose pock-marked face from a mysterious poisoning became the worldwide image of the Ukrainian opposition — and his main ally, Tymoshenko.

Analysts so far are divided on whether Sunday’s results indicate an ultimate Tymoshenko or Yanukovich win. Dmytro Boyarchuk, executive director of the CASE Center for Social and Economic Research in Kiev, says that Yanukovich’s popularity has peaked and he will not receive more than 40 percent in the next electoral battle. “Tymoshenko should be more satisfied with the results,” he said. 

But according to Mihail Pogrebinsky of the Ukrainian Center for Political Studies and Conflictology, the election is now Yanukovich’s to lose. Tymoshenko, he said, will find it difficult to bridge the 10 percent gap separating her from the six-foot-six former mechanic, who polled strongest in the Russian-speaking regions. 

“I give Yanukovich an 80 percent chance,” Pogrebinsky said. “Only a mass of mistakes will lose it for him.” 

Sunday’s outcome also calls into question two narratives that have accompanied these elections: the failure of the Orange Revolution, and Ukraine’s turn from the West and embrace of Russia. Neither is entirely correct. The Orange Revolution may be suffering and Ukraine is disenchanted with Europe and the United States, but this does not necessarily mean a victory for the Kremlin. 

The confusion stems from a misreading of the numerous reasons why tens, and sometimes hundreds, of thousands — a large number of them hopeful college students — braved freezing temperatures to camp out in tents on Kiev’s main Independence Square at the end of 2004. 

Some were there to protest against the existing political structure of then-President Leonid Kuchma: corrupt, in bed with oligarchs, economically inept and at times possibly brutal (the murder of popular journalist Georgiy Gongadze became a cause celebre). Yanukovich, Kuchma’s anointed heir and endorsed by the Kremlin, simply appeared to be a continuation of this system. 

On a related (but nevertheless separate) note, many who protested believed that the quickest way for Ukraine to overcome its post-Soviet, crony capitalist legacy was reject Russia and align itself with western structures like NATO and the European Union. 

As far as these two points go, the doomsayers are correct: The Orange Revolution is over. Ukraine is mired in a economic recession of historic proportions, corruption is still rife (if not worse than before) and oligarchs still pull the levers of state. The turn to the West, which was supposed to usher in the great changes, obviously did not. Moreover, political wrangling has led to complete deadlock, a phenomenon that was missing under Kuchma and has made a bad situation much worse. 

As a result, voters repudiated the candidate who is this failure’s greatest representative, Viktor Yushchenko — the Orange leader received only 5 percent of the vote. 

But a turn from the West doesn't translate into an embrace of Russia. Tymoshenko and Yanukovich each advocate improving relations with Russia, but they also want to continue close ties with the European Union. True, Moscow seems to have lent its tacit approval to both candidates — and Vladimir Putin may actually be rooting for the golden-braided prime minister — but this seems to be as much due to the simple fact that neither is Yushchenko, whom the Kremlin despises. 

Indeed, analysts say, Moscow may find out that Tymoshenko and Yanukovich are neither pro-West nor pro-Russia, but instead pro-Ukrainian. The weeks leading up to the second round will indicate to what extent either of the candidates are willing to go to improve ties with Ukraine’s giant eastern neighbor and main gas supplier. 

But in one sense the Orange Revolution is still alive and kicking: the success of free and fair elections. Despite widespread apathy and anger, and with many voters staying home, the election has still been spirited, with a multitude of candidates, and so far lacking any egregious vote-rigging. Within the former Soviet sphere — where electoral farces like those in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are the rule, not the exception — this is truly an accomplishment. Of course the second round will deliver the final verdict, and the stakes will be much higher then. But for the moment, some observers are sanguine. 

“[Sunday’s results] suggest that Ukraine will remain a place with democratic credentials and fiercely competitive elections,” said Balazs Jarabik, an analyst with the FRIDE think tank in Spain, who works in Kiev. “By the behavior of its voters, Ukraine is in Europe.”