Ukraine readies to vote under shadow of war

Ukrainian army soldiers guard a district election commission as an election official carries ballots to a polling station in Volnovakha, a village on the front line of fighting between Ukrainian government forces and rebels, eastern Ukraine on Saturday.

Ukrainian army soldiers guard a district election commission as an election official carries ballots to a polling station in Volnovakha, a village on the front line of fighting between Ukrainian government forces and rebels, eastern Ukraine on Saturday.

KIEV: Ukrainian leaders made final appeals to voters ahead of snap parliamentary elections Sunday that are intended to give impetus to democratic reforms, but are overshadowed by deepening conflict with Russia and pro-Russian rebels.

“At last we will elect a pro-Ukrainian and not pro-Moscow, an anti-corruption and not pro-bribery, a pro-European parliament,” President Petro Poroshenko said late Friday.

His Petro Poroshenko Bloc was forecast to emerge as the biggest party in the 450 seat legislature, although without an absolute majority, meaning he will have to form a coalition, probably with harder-line nationalists.

The elections were called to cement the pro-Western course launched in a February street revolt that overthrew the corruption-tainted, Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovych.

For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party is not expected to enter parliament, symbolizing what Poroshenko, elected president in May with 55 percent of the vote, hopes is an irreversible political shift.

Polls show a majority of Ukrainians support economic and democratic reforms — especially a crackdown on corruption — leading eventually to European Union membership.

However, the optimism and energy of the revolution have been sucked out by Russia’s seizure of the Crimea region and an uprising by pro-Russian rebels in the industrial Donbass region that has killed more than 3,700 people.

With no military victory in sight, Ukrainians may face the same kind of frozen conflict severely weakening other ex-Soviet states, such as Georgia, that have tried to break free from Russia’s influence.

Western governments blame Russia for the turmoil and have slapped painful economic sanctions on Moscow. However, President Vladimir Putin accuses the West of stirring up the conflict as part of a strategy to weaken Russia.

In a combative speech on Friday, the Kremlin leader lashed out at the United States and said Ukraine was showing a “lack of goodwill” to end the conflict “by peaceful means.”

The tug-of-war over Ukraine, a country of about 45 million, has propelled nationalist parties to the fore in Sunday’s vote, meaning that Poroshenko will be under pressure to deliver on anti-corruption promises and a solution to the armed conflict.

Radical Party leader Oleg Lyashko, a populist whose group has been polling second with nearly 15 percent of the vote and could end up in a coalition with the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, says he won’t tolerate business as usual.

“We are bringing new people into parliament,” he said in a final statement Friday, before campaigning was suspended. “We are going to parliament to carry out radical reforms, to radically change the situation.”

Ukraine — dependent on a new IMF bailout and hopeful that a new EU loan will cover debts to Russia for gas shipments, which have been suspended since June — knows its conduct of the polling will be closely scrutinized.

The fighting in the east and Russia’s annexation of Crimea pose immediate challenges to the election.

Ukraine had 36.5 million voters, but lost about 1.8 million after the annexation of Crimea in March, while about three million more live in separatist-controlled areas of Lugansk and Donetsk provinces.

Twenty seven seats in parliament from the conflict areas will remain empty.

 
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