Ukraine votes in key democracy test
KIEV - Agence France-Presse
An Ukrainian Orthodox priest casts his ballot at a polling station in Kiev, Ukraine, during the Ukrainian parliamentary elections on 28 October 2012. EPA photoUkraine voted Sunday in legislative polls seen as a test of democracy under President Viktor Yanukovych with jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko forced to watch from the sidelines.
The election for the 450-sear Verkhovna Rada chamber of parliament has also been shaken up by the political emergence of boxing heavyweight star Vitali Klitschko and recently retired football super-striker Andriy Shevchenko.
The ex-Soviet nation of 46 million people -- nestled between the European Union and Russia and still undecided about whose alliance it values most -- is holding its first vote since Tymoshenko lost to Yanukovych in a bitter contest in 2010.
The firebrand 2004 Orange Revolution leader was jailed less than two years later on abuse of power charges brought by Yanukovych's Regions Party that both Tymoshenko and Western nations regarded as a vendetta by the president.
Opinion polls suggest that Yanukovych's alliance with the Communist Party and a top centrist politician will secure a narrow victory over Tymoshenko's opposition bloc.
But in hot pursuit in third is the UDAR (Punch) party headed by world boxing champion Klitschko -- and a long-mooted alliance with the opposition bloc could swing the parliamentary majority away from the ruling party.
"I am confident that we will be able to gather all the opposition forces around us in the new parliament," the reigning heavyweight champion boldly predicted in an interview with a German newspaper on the eve of the vote.
An alliance between UDAR and the Tymoshenko bloc could give the opposition a parliamentary majority and further limit the political options of Yanukovych -- already under strong pressure from the West.
Half of the 450 seats will be filled by voters casting ballots for parties that have to clear a five percent minimum vote threshold. The remainder are filled by individual candidates who must win their districts.
The vote was preceded by an extremely rare joint letter from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton calling on Yanukovych to prove his democratic credentials to the world.
"Important steps now have to be taken by the Ukrainian government to fulfil its full potential," the open letter said.
"Ukraine's parliamentary elections at the end of this month will be an important bellwether for the state of these (democratic) institutions. At the moment, there are some worrying trends." The question of whether Yanukovych will lose his ruling majority depends largely on whether Klitschko -- assuming the dominant role of kingmaker -- follows through on his promise to work with Tymoshenko's team.
The president's ruling party is expected to secure the most number of seats and can also rely on the future support of Communists.
The Soviet-era leftist alliance is expected to finish in fourth place with about 11 percent of the vote and also join forces with a small centrist bloc of a prominent former parliament speaker.
Klitschko has insisted that he can work with Tymoshenko's alliance. But he has fought bitterly with other members of the potential coalition and has thus far refused to sign any formal agreement forming an official anti-Yanukovych bloc.
The towering boxer's first steps in national politics have made a much bigger impression on voters than those of fellow sports star "Sheva" Shevchenko -- a hero not only in Ukraine but also in Italy where he starred for eight years for AC Milan.
The inspirational former forward is the deputy head of the Ukraine Forward! movement that polls show picking up no more than three percent of the vote -- a miscalculation for a newcomer to Ukraine's bruising political world.
This would put Shevchenko's personal ambitions on hold while adding fire those of Klitschko and his corruption-fighting UDAR group.
"The results could shape the presidential ambitions of the incumbent as well as the leaders of the disparate opposition ahead of the 2015 (presidential) election," the US-based IHS Global Insight said.