Ukraine votes in an Orange shadow

Voters are trying hard to prevent a repeat of electoral fraud that had sparked the Orange Revolution in 2004.

Eight years ago, Independence Square in Kiev was awash with a single colour: orange. Orange clothes, orange flags, and orange facepaint. Electoral fraud in the 2004 presidential election disgusted millions of Ukrainians, and they poured onto the streets in a peaceful riot of the colour.

Amazingly, the Orange Revolution managed to force a rerun of the election, and a change of power.

Today, Independence Square is a little more sombre. Kids clambered over a display of tanks and artillery from the Second World War, and traditional Ukrainian dancers leapt and twirled to a small audience standing in the cold.

It is the anniversary for the liberation of Kiev by the Red Army, as well as election day. But politics here isn’t as thrilling as it used to be.

That’s both a good thing and a bad thing. Good because boring elections are the sign of a maturing democracy. And bad because it also suggests that political engagement suffered as the hopes of the Orange Revolution faded.

Transparency is vital in this election. The ballot boxes in the polling stations are made of clear plastic – and thousands of international monitors are here to make sure any irregularities are spotted.

Free and fair elections are hugely important both for Ukraine’s people, and for the country’s relationship with the European Union.

But this vote is unlikely to be entirely clean.

European monitors have already highlighted reports of candidate and voter intimidation, and opposition parties say there have been “voter carousels” – people bused from polling station to polling station, voting multiple times.

The question is, will it be dirty enough to bring people out onto the streets? The Ukrainians I spoke to after they had slipped their voting papers into the boxes came from across the political spectrum. All of them said they thought this election would be mostly fraud free.

“There are enough observers to stop falsification happening,” said a voter named Alla. Another voter, Maria, pointed out that there are plenty of cameras around to keep things honest.

From an outside perspective, the jailing of the former heroine of the Orange Revolution, Yulia Tymoshenko, is emblematic of political corruption in Ukraine. Her Fatherland Party has said it will call for protests if it detects fraud.

Even so, Tymoshenko’s popularity here shouldn’t be overstated.

A recent poll asked Ukrainians which political figures they most trusted. Tymoshenko came way down on the list with only 21 per cent finding her trustworthy – behind both President Viktor Yanukovych and the huge figure of former boxer Vitali Klitschko.

For many Ukrainians, the Orange Revolution failed, and its figureheads are as tainted now as the old guard, represented by the Party of Regions – perhaps even more so because of all those dashed hopes.

When I caught up with Klitschko on the campaign trail, he still displayed the slightly halting oratory of the political ingenue. He’s actually fought elections before, for mayor of Kiev. He lost twice, but is now having more success with this party UDAR, which means “punch”.

UDAR is drawing the support of people who are fed up with the failures and bickering of Ukraine’s more established politicians. Klitschko could even beat Tymoshenko’s party to second place, and have a powerful role to play as kingmaker for the next government.

That might be an awkward moment. Klitschko told me that Ukraine’s leaders are dragging the country towards authoritarianism. It’ll be interesting to see if he’s called upon to ditch the tough talk, and do a pragmatic deal with the people he’s been bad-mouthing. His potential future bedfellows, the incumbent Party of Regions, are likely take this election and lead the next government.

The party’s leaders have insisted the 2012 parliamentary elections will be properly conducted.

Ukrainians, Europe, and the West are watching closely to monitor if they’re as good as their word.

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