Slovyansk, Ukraine – Ukrainian leaders made final appeals to voters before snap parliamentary elections that are intended to give impetus to democratic reforms, but are overshadowed by deepening conflict with pro-Russian rebels.
The snap elections on Sunday were called by the president, Petro Poroshenko, in an effort to elect a parliament that was pro-Ukrainian, anti-corruption and pro-European.
In Slovyansk, for months the centre of fighting between Ukrainian forces and rebels, a small crowd waving Ukrainian flags had gathered on Saturday to show their support for the vote.
“Tomorrow, we all have to vote. It is our duty as citizens,” a speaker from one of the many civil society groups told the crowd, most of whom lived through all or part of the battles in this town earlier this year.
Poroshenko called the elections to cement the country’s pro-Western course launched in a February street revolt that overthrew the corruption-tainted, Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovich.
He believes this will help end Russian interference in his country’s affairs, and show pro-Russian rebels in the east that their cause is lost.
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For the first time since the end of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party is not expected to enter parliament, symbolising what Poroshenko hopes is an irreversible political shift.
However, the new parliament will be faced with the unpopular job of prescribing and enacting economic reforms that will be detested in a country scarred by war and economic collapse following the revolution.
Opinion polls show that the Poroshenko bloc will take a third of the proportional representation vote, leaving it in a relatively strong position.
However, the Radical Party, headed by the populist Oleh Lyashko, famous for throwing an official he claimed was corrupt into a dumpster, is set to take about 12 percent.
Other parties, including Fatherland, headed by the former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, are predicted to get just over the five percent threshold needed to get into the Rada.
Although many of the parties are reformist and European-leaning, some are backed by Ukraine’s oligarchs, the force that many would argue has kept corruption and crony politics entrenched in the country.
Others, such as the Opposition Bloc, represent the remains of Yanukovich’s all but disbanded Party of Regions.
With Ukraine’s economy contracting by as much as 10 percent this year and the IMF warning a $17bn bailout may not be enough to keep it afloat, Poroshenko and parliament will have to show vast improvements to keep Western donors and politicians happy.
Politicians also face the threat of another revolution if the promises made during the Maidan revolution – an end to corruption among them – are not carried out.
“It’s difficult to hold elections in a country that has seen military aggression from Russia,” the Ukrainian prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, said on Thursday. “The choice should be made not with a gun but with a ballot.”