Ukrainians head to the polls on October 26 to vote for a new parliament. How the voting goes in the strife-torn east could go a long way toward determining whether the elections infuse enough political will into the system that Ukraine can start fulfilling the promise of the Maidan movement.
It is difficult to predict how the elections will unfold in the east or whether easterners will show up to vote at all. According to the Democratic Initiatives Fund, a pro-democracy organization that conducted several surveys recently, 39 percent of eastern and Donbas potential voters remain undecided. The president’s party – the Petro Poroshenko Bloc – enjoys the highest ratings, receiving 14 percent support regionally. At the same time, only 50 percent of eastern and southern voters are expected to cast ballots in the elections.
“The voters do not see an obvious leader right now who would register with their interest,” said Vitaliy Nosachev, a historian and an observer for the Kharkiv branch of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, a national non-governmental watchdog organization.
The Party of Regions, once the chief political vehicle of former president Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted by Maidan protesters in early 2014, used to be the local favorite in Kharkiv and elsewhere in the east. But the party quickly crumbled after Yanukovych fled the country.
“After the [Party of Regions] was chased out, the [other] parties are not considered pro-Kharkiv. A lot of voters just do not see political powers they can consider to be theirs,” Nosachev said.
Voter ambivalence in the east is exacerbated by the fact that 14 of 32 districts in Donbas will not be able to open polling stations on October 26 because they sit in occupied territory, or the Zone of Anti-Terrorist Action, as it is known in Ukraine. Nine more districts will have limited voting opportunities, with fears of violence likely to keep a majority of polling places closed. While legal changes have been made to allow the internally displaced persons (IDPs) to take part in party-list voting, only 190,000 re-registrations have taken place Ukraine-wide, including IDPs from Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in the spring. Overall, the failure to find a broad solution for IDP voting means up to 5 million votes could be lost, according to the Committee of Voters of Ukraine.
There is some good news concerning the upcoming vote: it is likely to be much cleaner than previous elections. Earlier in October, new regulations designed to curb vote-buying were introduced. According to Vitaliy Teslenko, Deputy Director of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, instances of vote-buying are down by half since the last elections, when nearly 80 percent of all districts reported instances of bribery.
Asked whether the elections could be considered legitimate, given the situation in Donbas, Teslenko, said; “The elections will take place according to the law. The problem in the [excluded] regions is whether people vote there at all; whether or not you could call that voting is the question.”
Authorities say make-up elections will be held in areas currently under rebel occupation once they return to Ukrainian control.
Nationwide, recent polling data shows the Poroshenko Bloc to be the top vote-getter in party-list voting, with an estimated 30 percent. The runner-up is Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk-led People’s Front party, polling at almost 11 percent. A host of other parties could gain seats in the parliament by clearing the five-percent threshold in party-list voting. One erstwhile fixture that is not expected to have representatives in the next parliament is the Communist Party.
Some likely voters, interviewed at random on the streets of Kharkiv, are not especially optimistic that the elections will change anything. Anton Ilyichev, an electronics technician, said a combination of public apathy regarding politics and Russian media meddling was sufficient to skew the outcome.
“People are too lazy to gather information. Just offer them a gift,” Ilyichev said. “The person who presents information in the simplest way wins. Whoever has got more video time gets elected. People look at money. It is bad that they are waiting for hand-outs. And then they complain about corruption.”