Ukraine Vote Hands Defeats to Government Near East War Zone

  • Opposition groups winning in Kharkiv, Odessa and Slovyansk
  • Poroshenko ally Klitschko set to retain post as Kiev mayor

Pro-EU Parties Set to Control Ukraine’s Parliament

Local elections dealt a setback to President Petro Poroshenko and his administration around Ukraine’s eastern war zone, showing 18 months of conflict have done little to alter voter preferences in the region.

Preliminary results from Sunday’s ballots suggest Poroshenko-backed candidates were defeated in Kharkiv, Odessa and Slovyansk, cities where deposed leader Viktor Yanukovych had been popular. Polling stations stayed closed in Mariupol, on the edge of the conflict, over mistakes in printing ballots. In the capital, Kiev, presidential ally and ex-heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko is set to remain mayor.

"The elections indicated how far Ukraine still has to go, and how many legacies of the old regime need to be routed," Joerg Forbrig, senior program director at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. in Berlin, said by e-mail. "Regional networks associated with powerful oligarchs, and sometimes with ex-President Yanukovych, clearly remain strong."

The fight for Ukraine’s future is shifting away from the battlefield as optimism builds that a truce will end 18 months of violence near the nation’s border with Russia. After last year’s landslide victory for pro-European parties, support for Poroshenko and his team is dwindling on concern officials aren’t doing enough to tackle corruption and revive an economy that’s contracted for 11 of the last 12 quarters.

Prisoner Swap

As the cease-fire in the country’s easternmost regions mostly holds, the government and pro-Russian rebels agreed on a prisoner swap. Ukraine will release 11 people in return for nine captives held by rebels in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, Martin Sajdik, a representative of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, said Tuesday in Minsk, Belarus. Luhansk rebels also agreed to allow United Nations relief agencies to work in the territories they hold, Sajdik said. A pedestrian border crossing was opened to allow people to cross between areas held by the government and the insurgents in Luhansk region. 

There were positives in the local election for Poroshenko, according to Forbrig, who cited seats gained by the president’s party and loyalists on a majority of regional councils. There weren’t enough victories for opposition forces to trigger calls for early national elections, he said.

No ‘Revenge’

The ballots showed “anti-democratic” political parties failed to get “revenge,” Poroshenko said Monday in Kiev.

The local elections are "another important step in the consolidation of the country’s democratic governance," the European Union said in a statement. Turnout was 46.6 percent compared with 52.4 percent in the 2014 parliamentary elections, according to the Central Election Commission.

The elections generally respected democratic process, according to the OSCE. Even so, powerful economic groups dominated the vote, and most campaign coverage in the media was paid for by political parties, it said.

Wrong Direction

With promised reforms stalling, a September poll by the International Republican Institute showed two thirds of Ukrainians see the country heading in the wrong direction. While Poroshenko has pledged to rein in tycoons such as Ihor Kolomoyskyy, the president was himself a billionaire when elected and hasn’t met pledges to sell off assets that include Ukraine’s largest candy business.

The voting isn’t over for some mayoral candidates, with those who don’t pass the 50 percent barrier set for runoffs against the runners-up on Nov. 15. They could include Sasha Borovik, who trails the incumbent in Odessa despite backing from regional governor Mikheil Saakashvili, installed by Poroshenko to jumpstart reform and stamp out corruption.

With support for Poroshenko’s allies suffering, the party of his prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, didn’t even contest any local elections.

Voters are reacting to the recession, surging inflation and the plunge in the hryvnia, the world’s second-worst-performing currency over the last year, according to Volodymyr Zastava, an analyst at the Gorshenin Institute in Kiev, which focuses on democratic processes.

"Voter disappointment is closely linked to the economic situation," he said by phone. "It looks like Kiev isn’t ready to understand that."

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