Will Ukraine's east sway election?

UPDATE: Exit polls from Ukraine indicate that the pro-Moscow opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych has narrowly won the country's presidential election.

DNIPROPETROVSK, Ukraine — If Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is to triumph in the second and final round of Ukraine’s presidential elections on Sunday, she must convince more people here in her hometown to vote for her. 

Tymoshenko finished in a distant third place with only 15 percent of the vote in the Dnipropetrovsk region, an eastern industrial center where she was born 49 years ago. Viktor Yanukovych, 59, the party boss and former mechanic who hails from next-door rival Donetsk, won the region with 41.5 percent. Sergey Tigipko, the businessman who stormed to a surprising third place finish nationally, took 21.5 percent. 

A day before the runoff, very little is clear about this eastern European country’s vote: whether it will be clean of vote-rigging, what the post-election period will produce, or even what the candidates’ actual political platforms are. Most crucially, no one has a clear idea who will win. 

Tymoshenko is trailing in the polls, but she is a woman of mythic tenacity — one of her campaign posters compares her to a white tiger. Sixty percent of the country’s 37 million registered voters cast ballots for rival candidates, or for no one at all. Supporters of Tigipko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the next-place finisher, may end up cleaving to regional lines in Sunday’s voting — in the first round, voters in the country’s east and south overwhelmingly backed Yanukovych, while the center and west opted for Tymoshenko. Or they might favor the candidate of business-as-usual and stability (Yanukovych) over the one who represents intelligence and professionalism but also alarming demagoguery (Tymoshenko). Or they could outright refuse to vote. 

If the election is close, observers expect that the loser will more than likely challenge the outcome. These last three weeks before the second round have witnessed vicious jockeying between the two camps for an advantage once the ballots have been cast. First, Parliament, led by Yanukovych’s Party of Regions (POR), dismissed Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko, a key Tymoshenko ally and a man who could either aid or inhibit (depending on your political position) any voting fraud that might occur. Tymoshenko apparently reinstated him through a technicality, however. 

On Thursday, POR again forced through a last-minute law amending the composition of the local election commissions. Yanukovych said that the change was necessary in order to block planned falsification by Tymoshenko’s camp. Tymoshenko for her part said that the opposite was true: Her opponent was planning widespread ballot-stuffing. She threatened to call her supporters to the streets in a repeat of the 2004 Orange Revolution, where similar accusations of violations ultimately led to Yanukovych’s humiliating defeat. 

“If Yanukovych wants an honest fight, we’re ready to compete,” she told a press conference. “If he wants fraud, then we’re ready to give him resistance he’s never seen before, even in 2004.” 

Ukrainians, after a debilitating economic crisis and five years of bickering between Tymoshenko and President Viktor Yushchenko, her one-time Orange Revolution ally, are disheartened, angry and cynical. Calls to defend democracy against falsification — real or purported — may fall on deaf ears. 

But for Tymoshenko to credibly challenge the election results, the contest must first at least be close. A Yanukovych blowout would suck the air from her campaign. And cities like Dnipropetrovsk will play a major role in her success or failure. 

A metropolis of just over 1 million inhabitants, Dnipropetrovsk prides itself on two things: the Yuzhmash factory and design bureau, which produced the engines that drove the Soviet Union’s rockets and missiles, and political luminaries like communist leader Leonid Brezhnev and former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma. 

The Dnipropetrovsk region is also the country’s second largest electoral district — larger than some of Ukraine’s western constituencies put together. The fact that Tymoshenko began her multi-million dollar business and political career here has not helped her in the polls, however: She is seen now as an outsider, more affiliated with Kiev and the country’s nationalist west than the Russian-speaking (though ethnically Ukrainian) east. What’s more, she is perceived as having promised much, but delivered little to the city and region. 

“Yulia Tymoshenko has very deeply insulted the people of Dnipropetrovsk,” said Yuriy Raikhel, a local journalist and commentator, citing her promises (and failure) to finance a subway and bring the Euro 2012 soccer championships to the city. 

The golden-braided prime minister therefore needs every vote she can muster — most likely by siphoning off Tigipko’s and Yatsenyuk’s former supporters. Tymoshenko, in recognition of Dnipropetrovsk’s importance — and her own weak standing there — traveled to the city for a live question-and-answer broadcast, and a meeting with local business leaders. Speaking forcefully — her hands at times cutting the air decisively, other times reaching out in a seeming gesture of supplication — she fielded questions for more that two hours. But even her own strategists think she is facing an uphill battle. 

“Opinion polls show that Tigipko’s votes will be split evenly between Tymoshenko and Yanukovych,” said Vasiliy Stoyakin, a public relations and political expert who is working with Tymoshenko’s campaign. 

“Tymoshenko trails Yanukovych by 7 to 1.5 percent,” he added. “Not one prognosis sees her catching up and overtaking him.” 

Nevertheless, a large number of Tigipko voters said they would vote for the prime minister in the second round, if only to keep Yanukovych — who was sentenced twice in his youth and is known for his linguistic struggles in both the Russian and Ukrainian — from taking office. (His convictions were later struck from the record it's not clear what they were for.) 

“I’ll never vote for Yanukovych — he is a twice-convicted, uneducated bandit,” said Anya Gurina, a Dnipropetrovsk student. 

Back in Kiev, Yanukovych and Tymoshenko held competing final rallies Friday evening, just a couple of hundred yards from each other in front of two of the city’s main cathedrals. Tymoshenko’s gathering was called a “Prayer for Ukraine” and bore a solemn, almost funereal air. In contrast, Yanukovych’s was festive, with Ukrainian rap groups almost drowning out the rival meeting across the way. 

“The Orange era is ending,” Yanukovych said to cheers. 

But a top European official at the same time sounded a note of warning: “If the elections are not free and fair — and the period after the elections as well — then there will be a problem with Ukraine’s ‘open door’ to Europe,” said Pawel Kowal, the head European Parliament election observation mission and delegation for relations with Ukraine, referring to the country’s ongoing negotiations for EU admission.