Less than a year and a half after President Viktor Yushchenko struggled to power in a historic contest filled with clashes over corruption and fraud, voters today head into parliamentary elections in which the tone is much closer to the nuanced politics expected of a democracy.
The dreamy pro-Western coalition that brought Yushchenko victory through the Orange Revolution has broken into competing factions.
That sets the stage for a three-way race featuring the Party of Regions, headed by Viktor Yanukovich, the pro-Russian former prime minister who lost the 2004 presidential race; Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine; and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc.
None of these parties is expected to win a majority, but any combination of two probably could name the next prime minister.
Yushchenko contends that by bringing democracy to this former Soviet republic of 48 million, the Orange Revolution is an irreversible success, whoever comes to power this time.
“This is the first democratic election,” Yushchenko said at a recent news conference. “Colleagues, it is sufficient for us to be proud of.”
Polls show that Yanukovich’s party, with its strong base in industrialized eastern Ukraine, is likely to finish first, with about 30% of the vote, and the two main parties that led the Orange Revolution are each expected to have a share of 15% to 20%. Seats in the 450-member parliament are allocated proportionally according to the vote count.
A total of 45 parties and blocs are competing in the election, several of which are likely to get at least 3% of the vote, the threshold for getting into parliament. Some of them are seen as potential coalition partners for any of the three main parties.
No matter who comes out the winner, the most important changes triggered by the Orange Revolution are permanent because “the train has already moved way too far toward Europe and democracy and freedom,” said Denis Bohush, who is running on the Pora-PRP ticket, which unites Orange activists and the Reforms and Order Party.
“People had perceived themselves as a second-class nation, or the younger brother of Russia. Now we are very proud of our country, and you can’t kill that,” Bohush said.
“That’s the main thing. Second, censorship in the media is gone.” Unlike the early rounds of balloting in 2004, this election will be honest, he said.
“Even if Yanukovich wins this election, the people would know this is fair,” he said. “That’s another positive fact: The results of this election will be the real results.”
University student Aleksandra Dubnya, a supporter of the Orange Revolution, has one worry: that parties loyal to the two leaders who clashed so bitterly in the presidential race could end up running the country jointly in a “grand coalition.”
“I think that’s something that might happen,” she said. “I would be very sad about it. We have a saying that ‘you can’t mix holy things and sins.’ ”
For Dubnya, 20, the “holy things” are the people and dreams that came together two years ago around Yushchenko’s campaign, which achieved victory only after huge protests against electoral fraud forced a repeat runoff with Yanukovich, who was prime minister.
The orange-bedecked revolutionaries, who supported Yushchenko’s vision of remaking Ukraine in the image of a Western European country, viewed Yanukovich as the representative of corrupt business interests from the country’s generally pro-Russian eastern region.
How the post-election horse-trading will work out is far from clear, but many observers think it conceivable that Yanukovich could end up back in the prime minister’s post, as Dubnya fears.
Her friend Victor Kusnezh, 23, a graduate student in physics who also backs Yushchenko, is more sanguine. He says that the Orange Revolution’s dreams and passions soared unrealistically high, and that whatever happens, things will be OK now.
“Everything was seen as black and white: Yanukovich was a thief and an enemy, and Yushchenko was the hero of the Ukrainian nation,” Kusnezh said. “But it was impossible for that to be completely accurate. There were many different kinds of people on Yushchenko’s side -- they can’t be ‘holy.’ I think even if Yushchenko makes a deal with Yanukovich, that’s not terrible. That’s democracy. The purpose of the fight was democracy in Ukraine.”
The leader of the third main party, Tymoshenko, played a key role in bringing Yushchenko to power and served as his first prime minister. Their split in September was triggered by feuding allies and differences over economic policy and the pace of changes: Tymoshenko favored radical moves and the president a more cautious approach.
Tymoshenko has said she would never join forces with Yanukovich. But Yushchenko has kept the door open to that possibility.
Supporters of a Yanukovich-Yushchenko coalition think it would help unify Ukraine’s disparate regions and ensure steady economic development.
But critics say it would be a sellout by Yushchenko of the Orange Revolution’s democratic and pro-Western ideals.
Anna Bychkova, 66, a pensioner in the eastern city of Alchevsk who moved from Russia in 1958 to take a job at a chemical factory, is typical of those who hope Yanukovich will come back to power and boost government backing for state-run industries.
“Yanukovich speaks Russian more, and he’s more for the simple people,” she said.
Although most Ukrainians can speak both languages, those in western Ukraine tend to prefer Ukrainian and those in the eastern part of the country are more likely to think in Russian.
Promotion of Russian as a second official language is in the Party of Regions’ campaign platform. Yushchenko and Tymoshenko usually speak Ukrainian at political events and Yanukovich typically speaks Russian.
Stanislav Belich, head of the miners union at the Bazhanov coal mine near the eastern city of Donetsk, said he would vote for the Party of Regions because he liked the government’s policies when Yanukovich was prime minister, from 2002 to 2004.
“They stopped closing the mines,” he said. “Factories increased production. This happened when Yanukovich was in power, so the eastern regions have been supporting him.”