KIEV (AFP) – War-weary Ukrainians pick a powerful new parliament next Sunday set to be dominated by pro-Western and nationalist forces who will determine if President Petro Poroshenko can make peace with the Kremlin while holding on to the separatist east.
But it will be a vote held on a war footing in which millions of ethnic Russians in Ukraine will not be able to cast ballots because their lands have been either annexed by the Kremlin or seized by pro-Moscow militants.
And it will be quickly followed by another poll called by insurgents in the mainly Russian-speaking eastern rustbelt whose battle against government forces has killed 3,700 people and left Ukraine in economic ruins.
“The main issue of this election is war and peace,” said Volodymyr Fesenko of Kiev’s Penta political research institute.
The rival elections are the latest act in a historic and bloody drama played out at warp speed across the culturally splintered nation on the European Union’s outer frontier.
Russian-backed president Viktor Yanukovych’s rejection of a deal with the European Union last November sparked months of street unrest that culminated in the shooting of nearly 100 people and the ousting of the ruling elite.
But the Kremlin’s subsequent seizure of Crimea and alleged backing of the eastern revolt triggered a Cold War-style confrontation between Moscow and the West.
Poroshenko hopes the October 26 vote will give him the mandate to follow through on a hotly disputed peace plan he agreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin in September after a string of catastrophic battlefield defeats.
The pro-Western chocolate baron is hoping the truce deal will enable vital industries that have stood shuttered amid the daily shellings to resume production and help stir Ukraine’s imploding economy back to life.
But fears that Poroshenko was effectively caving into the Kremlin by offering rebels limited self-rule in return for peace have spurred the hopes of nationalist parties which reject talks with Russia.
Poroshenko “faces significant scepticism over the peace process from the public and centre-right parties,” the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy warned.
A dizzying 29 parties – none formally representing the ousted regime – will be contesting seats in the 450-seat chamber whose powers will include the right to name the prime minister and most of the cabinet.
“For the first time since independence, a pro-European majority has emerged in the electorate,” said Vadym Karasyov of Kiev’s Institute of Global Strategies.
The president’s eponymous Petro Poroshenko Bloc is leading opinion polls but lacks the majority needed to form a government.
This makes the performance of parties that share a more militant approach towards Russia and round out the top five of most voter surveys into crucial players who may determine the fate of the current uneasy truce.
Poroshenko would probably need to compromise less if he could form a ruling coalition with the help of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s newly-formed People’s Front.
Yatsenyuk led Ukraine’s negotiations with Western lenders and can be relied on to back unpopular belt-tightening measures demanded by the IMF under a global $27 billion bailout.
But a poor performance by him could force Poroshenko to seek an alliance with former premier and strident Putin critic Yulia Tymoshenko – a longstanding rival – or the Radical Party of the unpredictable populist Oleg Lyashko.
What remains of the Russian voters with Kremlin sympathies will face the choice of an enfeebled Communist Party or a hastily-arranged Opposition Bloc – a small band of tycoons and politicians who once backed Yanukovych and now promote a more socialist cause.
“The absolute majority of political parties and candidates are trying to hide their sympathies toward Russia,” Penta’s Fesenko said.