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Ukraine: Campaigning Starts In Parliamentary, Local Elections

Campaigning for Ukrainian parliamentary and local elections set for the end of March officially begins tomorrow (9 February). RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky looks at some of the main figures striving for a share of power.

Prague, 8 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainians go to the polls 31 March to elect a new parliament and fill thousands of municipality positions from city mayor to town council member.

The elections for parliament will be closely watched. For most of the decade that Ukraine has been independent, successive parliaments have been bitterly divisive, generating much noise but little action.

The Communists have constituted the largest single group in parliament. They and their allies have been strong enough to block legislation pushed by Western-style liberals and promarket reformers, but not large enough to push through the changes they would like.

The divided state of parliament has left effective power in the hands of President Leonid Kuchma. He has exploited the divisions to build temporary alliances that serve his interests.

Most ordinary Ukrainians are tired of the bickering and hope the vote will produce an assembly that is able to act effectively.

That hope was boosted by the emergence of a bloc of 10 democratic parties under the leadership of former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko.

But questions remain over whether the election will be fair.

Previous votes have been marred by allegations of ballot-box stuffing and charges that not all candidates were granted equal access to the media.

Earlier this week, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky expressed concern during , on a visit to Ukraine that the presidential administration was abusing its power with regard to the media and registering candidates.

The director of the American-funded Pylyp Orlyk Institute for Democracy, Markian Bilynsky, says there have been some changes to prevent the cruder sorts of election violations.

"The current election law is an improvement on its predecessor in the sense that it tightens up some of the party controls over the counting process, reporting process, etc. However, that is possibly the only substantial difference between the election environment or pre-election environment today and in 1998."

He says the most important violations in the electoral procedure are usually more subtle -- such as restricting candidate access to the media -- and not obvious to the general public.

"The violations in Ukraine have always been -- despite accusations that the government is very unsubtle -- the violations have always, in fact, been long-term and very subtle. In fact, subtle to the extent that they are not even perceived, I think, by most of the electorate as being violations."

He predicts the presidential administration will use its resources to promote a party called "Za Yednu Ukrajinu" (For a United Ukraine), which is seen as Kuchma's instrument in parliament. Bilynsky says Kuchma's priority is to have an obedient, stable majority in parliament to carry out his will.

"The key player in this election will be the president but obviously not in a formal manner. But the president and his administration will work on behalf of the bloc 'Za Yednu Ukrajinu.'"

Half of the 450 parliamentary seats will be contested in single constituencies. The candidate who wins the biggest share of the vote is elected. The other 225 seats will be awarded by candidates on party lists, in which voters will choose a party or bloc rather than an individual candidate.

A party or bloc must gain at least 4 percent of the votes cast to be represented.

Bilynsky believes the presidential administration will be able to use its influence most effectively in the single constituency ballots and less so in the party list.

The two groups that most observers predict will do well are the Communists, albeit with a reduced share of the 130 seats they hold, and the newly formed Nasha Ukrajina (Our Ukraine) bloc led by Yushchenko.

The Communists want to reverse capitalist reforms and favor closer ties with Russia.

Yushchenko's bloc consists of parties representing the right and center. Yushchenko advocates closer ties with the West, deepening market and democratic reforms, and working toward membership in the European Union and NATO.

Yushchenko proposed the idea for a grand democratic coalition seven months ago but has been criticized for not defining more clearly during that time who he wanted within his bloc.

"Mr. Yushchenko on the other hand, I think, played it quite smartly by trying to leave the bloc for as long as possible as an open invitation, not to alienate [anybody] and to bring as many people on board as possible by talking in very broad, maybe even vague, terms about his goals, his aims and what motivated his world view, etc."

Another grouping that may do well is the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine.

Ivan Lozowy, a political observer and a candidate for Yushchenko's Our Ukraine, says the group represents some of Ukraine's most powerful business figures. They have immense wealth to spend on the election campaign and control much of Ukraine's private media, including television channels.

Bilynsky believes the election results will show a big fall in support for the Socialist Party, led by Oleksandr Moroz. Moroz has a reputation for honesty but Bilynsky says that is not enough to attract voters in great numbers.

The Socialists would like to field as a candidate a former intelligence officer and presidential bodyguard who fled Ukraine after revealing he had secretly recorded Kuchma's conversations. The tapes point to Kuchma's alleged involvement in the murder of a journalist and in corruption. Kuchma has denied the allegations.

Ukraine's election commission has said the bodyguard, Major Mykola Melnychenko, is not eligible to run. Attempts to reverse this decision in court are not likely to succeed.