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Ukraine: Introduction To the March 26 Elections

(RFE/RL) Ukrainians are heading to the polls on 26 March for what some believe will be the first truly representative elections in the country's history. This optimism stems from the lack of heavy-handed presidential interference favoring select candidates, the emergence of relatively balanced media coverage, and recently audited voter lists.

The elections will be all-encompassing and held on a massive scale. In addition to selecting a new 450-seat parliament, voters will be choosing their local, municipal representatives. Mayoral races will be decided throughout Ukraine, as will the shape of oblast, district, village, and city councils.

In the parliamentary elections, 45 parties will by vying for seats, of which only six-to nice are believed to have a legitimate chance of passing the 3 percent threshold for parliamentary representation.

The Issues

Ukrainians will essentially be expressing their faith, or lack thereof, in the Western-leaning administration of President Viktor Yushchenko. The optimism that resulted from the Orange Revolution that swept Yushchenko into power during the contentious 2004 presidential elections has faded, along with the support for the Our Ukraine bloc he heads.

There are a number of reasons for this erosion, but none is greater than voters' disappointment with the state of the country's economy. Since Yushchenko came to office, Ukrainians have seen their real incomes rise, but GDP grown has fallen from 12 percent in 2004 to just 2.6 in 2005.

Meanwhile, gasoline and food prices have risen as the global price of metals -- on whose export Ukraine's economy largely depends -- have fallen steeply. To top it off, the country became embroiled in a bitter dispute with Russia after the latter cut off energy exports to Ukraine. Supplies resumed after Yushchenko's government agreed to a new deal, but his political opponents cried foul -- saying the deal was reached without parliament's consent and at too high a price. The uproar eventually led to the dismissal of the cabinet headed by the man who heads Our Ukraine's candidates list, Yuriy Yekhanurov.

Corruption is also a key issue. Yushchenko's former Orange Revolution partner -- Yuliya Tymoshenko, who now heads the rival Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc -- accuses Yushchenko's administration of being soft on corruption as officials of former President Leonid Kuchma's regime run free. At the same time the man he faced down in the presidential contest -- Viktor Yanukovych of the poll-leading Party of Regions -- claims that a war of political persecution is being waged under the guise of fighting corruption.

Main Contenders

Party of Regions: Yanukovych has reemerged in a big way after his initial victory over Yushchenko in the 2004 presidential election was thrown out due to allegations of massive fraud. He lost the subsequent repeat election, but his Party of Regions has recovered to the extent that it leads opinion polls going into the parliamentary elections. The party is expected to take 30 percent or more of the vote, no doubt benefiting greatly from the demise of the Orange movement whose supporters are splitting their votes between Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc.

The Party of Regions has hired an American public-relations firm and is supported financially by Ukraine's richest man, Rynat Akhmetov, who is No. 7 on the party's list and is being named as a potential prime minister in the new parliament. The Party of Regions opposes Ukrainian accession to NATO and appeals to the country's large Russian-speaking minority with calls to make Russian an official state language. The party finds vast support in industrial eastern Ukraine, which has been hardest hit by increased energy costs. Yanukovych promises a return to double digit GDP growth for Ukraine and states that a vote for him is a vote for jobs, business, and industry.

Notables on the party's list are Parliamentary Human Rights Ombudsman Nina Karpachova, parliamentary deputies Heorhiy Skudar, and Taras Chornovil.

Our Ukraine: Support for President Yushchenko's Our Ukraine has eroded as a result of corruption scandals, the gas dispute with Russia, and the perception that it has failed to deliver on the promises of the Orange Revolution. Add the competition with the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc for the same voters and the result is support of only about 10-20 percent in opinion polls, which could mean a third-place finish.

However, the party benefits from an easily identifiable Western-leaning platform that backs free market economics and European integration. While its support base is centered on western Ukraine, Our Ukraine enjoys considerable reach throughout the country.

The party list is topped by former Prime Minister Yekhanurov and also features National Security and Defense Council Secretary Anatoliy Kinakh and Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk.

Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc: Following their public feud and spit in the wake of her ouster as Prime Minister, Tymoshenko has escaped from the shadow of Orange Revolution partner Yushchenko.

The Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc she heads is waging a populist campaign promising a war on corruption, lower food prices, and improved social services. The result is support of 10 to 20 percent in opinion polls, which has led her to call for her reinstatement as prime minister should her party gain more seats than Our Ukraine.

Notables on the party's list are former security Service (SBU) chief Oleksandr Turchynov, former deputy prime minister Mykola Tomenko, parliamentary deputy Vasyl Onopenko, and television journalist Andriy Shevchenko.

What's New?

Election Law: Courtesy of a new election law: passed in October 2004, no single-mandate constituencies will be contested. Previously the 450 parliamentary seats were fill by a 50-50 mix of regional representative and party lists. In this election 45 parties and blocs will be vying for the parliament's 450 seats.

In addition, the new parliament members will elected to five-year terms, as opposed the previous four-years, and will not be able to quit the party or bloc on whose lists they ran.

Financing rules have been revised to allow parties and blocs to use only their own funds and those allocated from the state budget during the campaigning period, which was extended from 90 to 120 days.

Other changes include raising the threshold for parliamentary representation to 3 percent of the vote, and the stipulation that election results are to be released within two weeks of the polling day.

As an added bonus, voter lists are expected to be more accurate as a result of the auditing that took place while the new law was being developed.

New Parliamentary Powers: As a result of increased powers granted to parliament in late 2004, the president will no longer be allowed to nominate the prime minister and most of the cabinet ministers.

The president will now only be able to nominate the foreign minister, defense minister, prosecutor-general, and the head of the security service, and all of the nominees will be subject to parliamentary approval.

Parliament has also gained the right to dismiss any minister, including the prime minister. In addition, the prime minister will have to report to both the president and to the parliament, whereas previously that post only had to answer to the president.

The president balances the new parliamentary powers by being able to dissolve parliament if it cannot form a majority 30 days after the first session, or if it fails to form a cabinet within 60 days after the dismissal or resignation of the previous cabinet.

(compiled by RFE/RL)

Referendum On The Revolution

Referendum On The Revolution

Yushchenko supporters attend a rally in Kyiv on December 26-27, 2005

RETHINKING THE ORANGE: The March 26 elections are the first major national referendum on President Viktor Yushchenko and the ideals of the Orange Revolution that brought him to power in early 2005. Opinion polls in Ukraine indicate widespread dissatisfaction with developments in the country since Yushchenko took power. The results of the elections are expected to clarify whether Yushchenko will be able to step up the implementation of his reformist policies declared during the 2004 Orange Revolution or whether he will get mired even deeper in political wrangling with his opponents...(more)

See also:

Why Are Ukrainians Disappointed With The Orange Revolution?

Has Yushchenko Betrayed The Orange Revolution?

Pollster Maps Out Post-Revolutionary Moods

REVOLUTION IN THE AIR: Listen to an audio portrait of the Orange Revolution from RFE/RL's archives.
Real Audio Windows Media

Click on the image for background and archived articles about Ukraine's March 26 elections.

Click on the image to see RFE/RL's coverage of the Ukrainian elections in Ukrainian.

Click on the image to view a photo gallery of some of the key players in the Ukrainian elections.

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