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Ukraine At A Crossroads As Elections Loom – OpEd

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Not much has been written about Ukraine’s upcoming October 25 local and regional elections. It seems that pundits are more interested in sensationalistic stories of pesky Russians destabilizing European countries than in following political debates – even though the latter are bound to be infinitely more consequential than the latest piece of Russian hardware spotted in Eastern Ukraine. Indeed, this election could be pivotal for the country, as the government of President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk faces serious challenges from political rivals surging in the polls, rogue nationalist elements and powerful business interests.

A new electoral law complicates the outcome and adds more uncertainty into the equation: voters will vote both for a party and a party candidate, meaning that end results could be skewed by elements such as name recognition. Opinion polls show that Ukrainians are ready to vote later this month – fully three quarters of Ukrainians polled are either somewhat likely or very likely to cast a vote on October 25. A great deal of the impetus is certainly President Poroshenko’s job disapproval rate, as only four percent strongly approve of his performance to date, whereas forty percent strongly disapprove, the highest disapproval rate since polling began in March 2014. His cabinet is similarly unpopular, to the tune of just two percent strongly approving and fifty-four percent strongly disapproving.

Six political parties made the 5% threshold for participation in last year’s elections, and there will be no shortage of parties and candidates participating in this month’s elections. While not nearly as influential as parliamentary elections, this week’s poll will likely send several signals that should worry the Poroshenko/Yatsenyuk alliance. New parties with strong local presence have emerged on the national stage, such as Power of People and Our Land. What’s more, the nationalist Right Sector is polling at 6%, a worrisome figure for a far-right group with suspected neo-Nazi beliefs.

Poroshenko’s party, Solidarity, recently merged with Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, and named Kiev’s mayor (and former WBC, WBO andThe Ring magazine heavyweight boxing champion) Vitali Klitschko its leader in an effort to shore up support. His main ally is now reduced to ashes as Yatsenoiuk’s People’s Front is polling at 1% and has dropped out entirely from participating in the October 25 elections. The Prime Minister isn’t expected to complete his full term and will probably be replaced by Poroshenko after the local elections.

Indeed, Mikheil Saakashvili, former President of Georgia and current governor of Odessa, has been rumored as a candidate for the spot of Prime Minister. A strong supporter of the Maidan revolution, Saakashvili was appointed governor to clean up the mafia-ridden port of Odessa and locked horns with the region’s strongest oligarch Igor Kolomoyskyi. Saakashvili is not one to back down from a fight – he started a war with Russia over control of South Ossetia. However, after an interview on Poroshenko’s own television station, it’s become obvious that Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk are now in his crosshairs.

Accusing the government of “sabotage” and stating that “a total reset” was needed “on all levels” of the Ukrainian government, Saakashvili garnered tens of thousands of signatures on a petition demanding that he be appointed to replace Yatsenyuk. He’s already declined to take part in the elections, and there’s some suggestion that he’s being used by Poroshenko to keep Yatsenyuk in line, but his popularity has continued to rise, leading many to caution that it’s still too early to count him out.

Another name being mentioned in some circles is that of Dmytro Firtash. Firtash is an influential businessman, investor, and philanthropist who controls the lion’s share of Ukraine’s titanium business via his corporation RosUkrEnergo. As president of the Federation of Employers of Ukraine, Firtash is a leader in the Agency for the Modernization of Ukraine, which seeks to raise US$300 billion to improve the infrastructure of Ukraine. In 2014, Firtash orchestrated an alliance between Poroshenko and Klitschko, convincing the boxer to support Poroshenko for the Presidency. Since last year’s elections, he has addressed political issues in Ukraine from an economic standpoint on several occasions and, although financially supporting Viktor Yanukovych’s campaigns in the past, remains officially uncommitted to any of the candidates running at the present time. After being confined in Austria, where he faced down criminal charges, Firtash announced he would return to Ukraine, presumably in order to get more involved in national politics.

The other political heavyweight in the picture who is making an unexpected comeback is the “Princess Leia of Ukrainian politics,” the former Ukraine Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko whose party is polling neck and neck with Poroshenko’s. Along with Viktor Yushchenko, she led the Orange Revolution in late 2004 and early 2005. She was twice the Prime Minister under Yushchenko, but her tenure in government has been anything but free of controversy, though. In 2010 Ukrainian prosecutors investigated her for allegedly bribing supreme court judges, and later that year opened another case regarding alleged misuse of funds. The next year prosecutors investigated her for abuse of power during the 2009 Ukraine gas crisis. While serving a seven-year sentence for the conviction on the abuse of power charges, she was re-arrested and charged with embezzlement and tax evasion. She was released from prison in February 2012 after international condemnation of the conviction as being politically motivated and was subsequently rehabilitated. She has risen to popularity largely for her position against increased autonomy for eastern Ukraine. However, it remains to be seen how great a liability her past political career and associated scandals may be should she seek office again in the near future.

With so many competing forces vying for power, the October 25 elections will definitely prove to be more consequential than many expect – especially if they lead to Yatsenyuk’s resignation. And with Western minds transfixed by Syria, Ukraine could be quietly heading towards a new period of political instability.

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