Monday, January 18, 2010

Round One Done In Ukraine Elections

Round One of the presidential elections in Ukraine are over, as expected former President Viktor Yanukovych finished in first place with more than 31% of the vote. And despite her warnings of voter fraud, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko finished a close second with around 27%; in fact Tymoshenko was the only candidate to dramatically outperform the pre-election polls, winning 10% more of the electorate than the latest polls indicated she would. Former economics minister Sergey Tigipko, who one poll predicted might challenge Tymoshenko for the number two spot, came in a distant third with 10%, current President Viktor Yushchenko meanwhile gathered a mere 5% of the vote.

This sets the stage for a Tymoshenko-Yanukovych showdown on February 7. Even in its first hours the run-off campaign is becoming nasty and personal. In a speech last night Tymoshenko blasted Yanukovych as being corrupt and undemocratic, while he tried to tar her with the unfulfilled promises of the Orange Revolution. Conventional wisdom is that in the second round Tymoshenko has the edge over Yanukovych. His support has largely come from the sizable ethnic Russian populations in the cities of Ukraine’s industrial heartland in the east, there’s a lot of doubt though that he’ll be an attractive candidate in other parts of the country. Tymoshenko, meanwhile, has been actively trying to reach out to the Russian population in the east while also calling on the supporters of the 16 defeated candidates from the first round of voting to rally around her as the “democratic” choice in the run-off.

Either candidate is likely to rebuild the strained relationship between Ukraine and Russia. Back in 2004, Moscow threw its support solidly behind Yanukovych because of his close ties to Ukraine’s ethnic Russian population. Recently though Russia has been warming to the idea of President Tymoshenko. She has actively worked to avoid another crisis with Russia over natural gas supplies, making those in the Kremlin feel like she’s someone they can do business with. Then there’s the matter of her former advisor Vitali Gaiduk, a part-owner of the massive Ukrainian steel producer ISD Corporation, which is in negotiations with a group of Russian investors, including the state-run Vnesheconombank, who are looking to take it over. Such a deal would of course boost economic ties between Kiev and Moscow and be a further indication of Tymoshenko’s openness to Russian influence.

Tymoshenko, meanwhile, is portraying herself as a populist, mother figure for Ukraine. "As long as I am prime minister, my family is Ukraine and the entire Ukrainian people," she said on a recent campaign stop.
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