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Ukrainians Go To The Polls In Key Parliamentary Elections

Supporters of the pro-presidential Party of Regions attend an election rally in Kyiv on October 26. The latest opinion polls give the party a slight lead over two opposition parties.
Supporters of the pro-presidential Party of Regions attend an election rally in Kyiv on October 26. The latest opinion polls give the party a slight lead over two opposition parties.
KYIV -- Can President Viktor Yanukovych maintain his dominance over Ukrainian politics? How will the opposition fare with Orange Revolution firebrand Yulia Tymoshenko languishing in prison? And how much will heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko shake up the political scene?

These are some of the questions looming as Ukrainians go to the polls on October 28 to elect a new parliament, the first national elections since Yanukovych became president in 2010.

Yanukovych's critics accuse the president of rolling back the democratic reforms of the 2004 Orange Revolution, persecuting his political opponents, and attempting to turn Ukraine into an authoritarian state similar to Vladimir Putin's Russia.

And if his ruling Party of Regions emerges victorious in the elections with a strong majority in the Verkhovna Rada, there will be little stopping him from consolidating his grip on power.

Ukraine Elections Factbox

Ukraine Elections Factbox

The parliamentary elections in Ukraine are scheduled for October 28.

A total of 36,687,114 voters are registered in the State Voter Register (SVR) as of August 31.

The elections will use a mixed voting system: 50 percent under party lists and 50 percent under simple-majority constituencies with a 5 percent election threshold.

The participation of blocs of political parties is not allowed anymore.

The option "vote against all" is not included on the electoral lists.

See full factbox
"These are very important elections for Ukraine," says political analyst Vitaliy Bala, director of the AMC consulting group. "We are on the frontier moving toward the same scenario as in Russia. Not only are we seeing a vertical of power that answers to the president but [that vertical] is growing stronger."

Three-Horse Race

Since Yanukovych came to power, Tymoshenko and other opponents have been jailed on charges critics say are politically motivated, the presidency has been strengthened at the expense of parliament, and international watchdogs have reported a rise in corruption and a decline in press freedom. Yanukovych's inner circle, known as "the family," is widely seen as untouchable.

Seeking to stifle Yanukovych's concentration of power in these elections, however, are two political forces. The United Opposition movement, led by former Foreign Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, unites his supporters with those of Tymoshenko, the jailed former prime minister. And the upstart party Udar, which means "punch" in Ukrainian, is led by heavyweight boxing champ Klitschko.

The most recent polls show the Party of Regions leading with 23 percent support. Klitschko's Udar is in second place with 16 percent followed closely by the United Opposition, which is polling at 15 percent.

Flags of United Opposition wave above the crowd during their preelection meeting in front of St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv on October 26.
Flags of United Opposition wave above the crowd during their preelection meeting in front of St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv on October 26.

Yanukovych's Party of Regions, which is backed by industrial oligarchs in Ukraine's Donbas region, draws its support primarily from the country's Russian-speaking east and south, while the United Opposition is strongest in the west.

And Klitschko's star power has virtually overnight turned Udar into a player that could potentially win votes across the country. Indeed, analysts call the "Klitschko factor" the election's main wildcard. He is campaigning on a pro-Western and anticorruption platform, but says he will wait until after the election to decide if Udar will enter an alliance with the United Opposition.

A Shot To The System

Klitschko is currently Ukraine's most trusted politician according to public opinion polls, which have recently shown his popularity surging. And a strong result on October 28, analysts say, could instantly turn him into a contender to challenge Yanukovych for the presidency in 2015.

Tetyana Nesterovych, a retired teacher, told Reuters she was disillusioned with both the Party of Regions and the opposition, and was placing her hopes on Klitschko.

"I would like neither the first nor the second [to win]. I would prefer some new force. Although I don't know fully what Klitschko and his Udar will promise but I have children and grandchildren and I want a different life for them," Nesterovych said.

"I am a teacher, I've been working for 27 years and my pension is 980 hryvnyas [about $121], I don't want my children to live like this."

Likewise, Serhiy, a 35-year-old engineer from the Kyiv suburb of Vyshneve who gave only his first name, said he backed Klitschko both "inside the [boxing] ring" as well as outside.

"Our Verkhovna Rada needs new people and new forces," Serhiy said. "The ones who have sat there for three, four, five terms need to be booted out. We need new people."

The Tymoshenko Factor

The elections will be the first without Tymoshenko's participation since 1994. But her presence is nevertheless felt even as she serves a seven-year sentence for abuse of office in a case her supporters say is politically motivated.

On October 22, a dozen of those supporters gathered outside the Prosecutor-General's Office in Kyiv to protest her imprisonment in the eastern city of Kharkiv.

Stasiya, a 68-year-old pensioner who did not give her last name, clutched a portrait of the former prime minister. "I have come here just as I came last time with the hope that perhaps there will be justice in this country just for one single day," she said, "that perhaps there will be some kind of human feeling in this country."

WATCH: Yevhenia Tymoshenko appeals to Ukrainians.
Tymoshenko To Voters: Not One Vote For Yanukovych
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Speaking at a press conference in Kyiv on October 25, Tymoshenko's daughter, Yevhenia, said the election could be Ukrainians' last chance to stop Yanukovych from concentrating power in his own hands.

"If Yanukovych survives as a politician in this election, thanks to your votes, he will complete the building of a dictatorship and he will not give up his power by peaceful means anymore," the younger Tymoshenko said.

Administrative Advantages

For its part, Yanukovych's Party of Regions' claims it has brought stability to the country has relied on populism and increased public spending that it argues has insulated Ukrainians from the worst effects of the global economic slowdown.

That argument clearly resonates with some voters, like Valentyn Lytvynov, a retired miner. "I can see those changes that the Party of Regions ushered in," he told Reuters.

"In the past 20 years we haven't seen so many things achieved: schools, kindergartens, everything else, roads, airport, everything that needs to be done was done, my only hope is with the Party of Regions, there is no one else."

But analysts say they expect the ruling party to utilize so-called administrative methods, or the use of state resources, to boost its vote total, as well as outright falsification.

Olga Shumylo-Tapiola, a Ukraine specialist at the Carnegie Center for International Peace, calls the vote a "litmus test" of the country's democratic credentials.

Political analyst Konstantin Matviyenko, head of the Gardarika consulting group, is skeptical that Ukraine will pass that test. "I can't think of a single political player in Ukraine that would be prepared to electioneer honestly and that's clearly because there have not been honest elections in Ukraine for a long time," she says.

In addition to the Party of Regions, the United Opposition, and Udar, the Communist Party is also widely expected to clear the 5 percent barrier necessary to win seats in parliament. Two small nationalist parties, Svoboda and Forward Ukraine, also have a chance of crossing the threshold.

Material from Reuters was used in this report