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Ukrainian Vote Tests Government's Strength Against Oligarchs


Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko talks to the media after voting in Kyiv.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko talks to the media after voting in Kyiv.

Local elections held across much of Ukraine are shaping up as a test of the strength of President Petro Poroshenko's government against oligarchs used to running their own regions.

Final results from the election for mayors and municipal council members are not expected before October 28, with runoff votes in mid-November for mayoral contests that produce no immediate winner.

The October 25 local elections had been due to be held throughout Ukraine, with the exception of eastern areas controlled by Russian-backed separatists, some government-held territory nearby, and Crimea, which was taken over by Russia last year.

But polls never even opened in Mariupol, a big port city that is strategically located between rebel-held areas and Crimea, due to a dispute over ballots.

The meltdown in Mariupol highlighted the power struggle between the central government and regional tycoons. Kyiv wants to strengthen democracy and move Ukraine toward European integration, while the priority for many tycoons is to maintain their grip on regional power, or strengthen it. The situation has also traditionally provided Moscow with a window for interfering in Ukrainian politics by buying influence with the oligarchs, who are often linked to Russia through business activities.

Rinat Akhmetov
Rinat Akhmetov

The government-controlled electoral commission ordered the poll delayed in Mariupol after what it said was "improper" printing of ballots by a company controlled by industrialist Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man.

The elections in Mariupol "were aborted... due to the improper preparation of election ballots, the absence of control over their printing and number, and reliable storage,” Poroshenko's Solidarity party said in a statement.

Ukraine's Opposition Bloc, which fielded a official from Akhmetov's company Metinvest as its mayoral candidate in Mariupol, accused the government of suspending the local election because it feared defeat.

The Mariupol vote has not yet been rescheduled.

"In general terms, there is a struggle under way in Ukraine between the old and the new," says Robert Brinkley, chairman of the steering committee of the Ukraine Forum at London-based Chatham House. "What I mean by that is old, corrupt, autocratic ways of doing things in which big business figures have influence beyond what they should have in a democratic state, and the new -- involving open democracy and free markets, where very large numbers of people in Ukraine, both in the Orange Revolution and more recently in the Euromaidan, have said that is the way they want to go."

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which monitored the October 25 elections, said that they were "well-organized" and "democratic" but that Kyiv needs to to tackle political meddling by powerful oligarchs.

"The complexity of the legal framework, the dominance of powerful economic groups over the electoral process, and the fact that virtually all campaign coverage in the media was paid for, underscore the need for continued reform," the report said.

Odesa mayoral candidate Sasha Borovik
Odesa mayoral candidate Sasha Borovik

In Odesa, Ukraine's largest Black Sea port, reformists are battling to oust incumbent Mayor Hennady Trukhanov in what is seen as a direct challenge to the country’s oligarchic elite.

Challenger Sasha Borovik, a U.S. educated lawyer and aide to regional Governor Mikheil Saakashvili, the reformist former Georgian president, is running with the support of Poroshenko's bloc.

Solidarity is projected to take the biggest number of mayoral seats and local legislatures. But the president's approval rating has slipped to 26 percent, amid continuing economic turmoil and the insurgency in the east, whose violence has ebbed in recent weeks.

One beneficiary of weaker support for Porshenko's allies could be the Opposition Party, largely made up of former members of the Party of Regions -- Viktor Yanukovych’s party until he was ousted as president and fled to Russia last year, following months of protests over his decision to scrap plans for an Association Agreement with the European Union and tighten ties with Moscow instead. The protests were known as the Euromaidan.

In many parts of eastern Ukraine -- a stronghold for the former Party of Regions -- politicians with pro-Russian leanings have remained in local power positions.

The Opposition Bloc, 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, a status that Russia has adamantly urged Ukraine to adopt.

If the Opposition Bloc does well in the mainly Russian-speaking east of Ukraine, the result could resurrect a so-called "Orange-Blue" divide in Ukraine that dates back to the struggles over the country's course after it gained independence when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991.

The divide saw most of western Ukraine backing the pro-Western Orange Revolution in 2004, while many in the east favored keeping the country in Moscow's orbit. Tensions peaked after Yanukovych balked at signing the Association Agreement with the EU in 2013, leading to the pro-EU protests in Kyiv that ousted him in February 2014.

However, analysts say any new Orange-Blue divide in the country would be less sharp than before as pro-EU sentiment has gained ground in parts of eastern Ukraine since Russia seized Crimea and backed separatist rebels in a conflict that has killed more than 7,900 people since April 2014.

The leader of the Batkivshchyna Party, Yulia Tymoshenko, votes at a polling station in Dnipropetrovsk.
The leader of the Batkivshchyna Party, Yulia Tymoshenko, votes at a polling station in Dnipropetrovsk.

Another beneficiary of the October 25 vote could be the Batkivshchyna Party of Yulia Tymoshenko, a top opposition leader and former prime minister who is now demanding a “professional army and fair tariffs” -- meaning rates for gas, electricity and other utilities -- in Ukraine.

Tymoshenko and her allies are expected to do better than their disappointing sixth-place finish in parliamentary elections last October.

Fatherland was given a boost when the first postelection exit polls showed its candidate forcing Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschko -- the former heavyweight boxing champion and important ally of the president -- into a mid-November runoff.

Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyy
Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyy

Political analysts are also closely watching Andriy Sadovyy's Samopomich faction, which rose from relative obscurity to finish in third place in the parliamentary elections.

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 capital city.

Separatists in control of portions of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions blocked holding the elections there.

The separatists originally threatened to hold their own local elections on October 18 but later postponed the date to February -- 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 the country were generally not allowed to vote.

The local elections were 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.

The local elections are not supposed to impact the implementation of the Minsk accords, which created a road map for a ceasefire and political settlement to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. That’s because implementation of the Minsk accords is the responsibility of the central government.

But analysts say a strong showing by the Opposition Bloc and the Batkivshchyna Party could weaken Poroshenko’s political clout and ability to win over votes in parliament needed to implement the Minsk agreements.

With reporting by AP, Reuters,AFP, dpa, Kyiv Post, TASS, and Interfax

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