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Ukraine Local Elections To Test Poroshenko's Strength Amid Multiple Crises

  • Charles Recknagel

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko pays his respect to a Ukrainian flag found close to the remains of fallen soldiers in eastern Ukraine. Local elections this week are being seen as an important barometer of how Ukrainians think his administration is handling the country's myriad problems.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko pays his respect to a Ukrainian flag found close to the remains of fallen soldiers in eastern Ukraine. Local elections this week are being seen as an important barometer of how Ukrainians think his administration is handling the country's myriad problems.

Ukrainians vote on October 25 in local elections that will test popular support for pro-Western President Petro Poroshenko amid the country's deep economic crisis and war in the east.

Voters will choose mayors and representatives to municipal councils in all parts of Ukraine except areas controlled by pro-Moscow separatists and in Russian-annexed Crimea.

The elections come amid mounting frustration over the 18-month-long conflict in eastern Ukraine, where Kyiv has deployed 83,000 front-line soldiers but has been unable to defeat the rebels. The West and Kyiv accuse Moscow of providing crucial military support, although Russian officials deny the charge.

At the same time, the government has failed to revive an economy that has been bankrupted by the war and the loss of the Ukraine's industrial heartland to the separatists, leaving it heavily dependent on Western and international financial help.

Popular frustration has sparked the emergence of scores of new small parties, which will vie for positions on local councils. More than 130 parties in total will take part in the polls amid reportedly high voter interest.

"There is a bit of a power vacuum," says Ivan Lozowy, a Ukrainian-American political analyst based in Kyiv. "The party of Petro Poroshenko does not really have any grassroots structure, so we see a lot of smaller groups vying for positions in local government as a means of buttressing their parties and promoting them."

Poroshenko's Solidarity party is projected to take the biggest number of mayoral seats and local legislatures. But the president's approval rating has slipped to 26 percent, or less than half of what it was when he became president in May 2014.

Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, whose own popularity has plunged, is not even fielding candidates from his party in the polls.

One beneficiary could be Ukraine's Opposition Party, largely made up of former members of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions.

Eastern Stronghold

In many parts of eastern Ukraine, the former Party of Region's stronghold, members have remained in local power positions despite the Euromaidan protests that chased the Moscow-backed Yanukovych into exile in February 2014.

"Larger population centers in eastern Ukraine, not far from the war zone, are important to watch because they can show what I believe will be a comeback by the Party of Regions, which has really put forth candidates under other party brand names," says Lozowy.

He predicts that such derivative parties will do well as voters in the east follow a well-established practice of voting for representatives of local oligarchs and as civic groups there have failed to create alternative choices.

The Opposition Party, which currently holds about 10 percent of the seats in the national parliament, rejects Poroshenko's goal of bringing Ukraine into NATO and favors nonalignment. It advocates ending the war in the east peacefully by negotiating with Russia and seeks a return to Ukraine's 1991 borders, reestablishing Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine currently under rebel control as Ukrainian territory.

The elections will also be a test for Yulia Tymoshenko's Fatherland (Batkivshchyna) party, which hopes to mount a nationwide comeback on its calls for a "professional army and fair tariffs."

Another party to watch is Andriy Sadovyy's Self-Help (Samopomich) faction, which scored an astonishing third place in last year's parliamentary elections after rising from relative obscurity in western Ukraine. Sadovyy himself is fighting for a third term as mayor of Lviv amid critics' charges that he has become too distracted by national politics to lead the city.

Meanwhile, in Odesa, reformists are battling to oust incumbent Mayor Hennady Trukhanov in what is seen as a direct challenge to Ukraine's oligarchic elite. Challenger Sasha Borovik, an aide to Odesa Governor Mikheil Saakashvili, is running with the support of Poroshenko's bloc.

Separatists in control of portions of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions have blocked holding the October 25 elections there. The separatists originally threatened to hold their own local elections on October 18 but later postponed the date to February next year -- reportedly under pressure from Moscow.

In addition to those living in the separatist-controlled areas, some 1.5 million people who have fled from eastern Ukraine and Crimea and now live scattered across government controlled areas of the country have been disenfranchised from the voting.

Decentralization

The local elections are intended to set the stage for a planned devolution of more power from Kyiv to municipal bodies in the future. The new powers could include keeping more locally collected tax money at home instead of sending it to Kyiv to be reapportioned by the central government.

However, change could come slowly because devolution includes demands for greater autonomy in the east. Demands put forth by pro-Russian separatists are part of the Minsk peace process and are the subject of hot debate in the Ukrainian legislature as it discusses amendments to the constitution that would be necessary for any new decentralization of power.

As Ukrainians pick new local authorities in these elections, they will not be voting for regional governors, which are appointed by the central government. The practice is criticized by some as a restriction of popular democracy but justified by Kyiv as necessary to keep Ukraine unified amid regional differences.

"The rationale is to make sure that Ukraine remains a cohesive polity, that it doesn't pull too much in different directions [because] the political culture is still quite immature and the quality of local politics could be disturbing," says Orisa Lutsevych, manager of Ukraine Forum at Chatham House in London. "So if you completely decentralize without preserving any kind of oversight from the center, it could be dangerous."

The current local elections are the first since snap elections in May 2014 in many parts of Ukraine, immediately after the Euromaidan unrest ousted Yanukovych. They are the first regularly scheduled local polls since 2010.

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