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Up Front

A Critical Vote in Ukraine

Steven Pifer

Ukrainian voters go to the polls on Sunday to choose a new president. The election is important: the winner will have a renewed democratic mandate, which should enhance the government’s credibility within Ukraine, especially in the country’s east. Whether the vote will lead to a change of policy in the Kremlin—which for the past three months has actively sought to destabilize the acting government in Kyiv—remains to be seen.

Sunday’s ballot matters. The current acting president and acting prime minister came to power in an unusual manner, a result of the unusual circumstances that Kyiv found itself in at the end of February. President Victor Yanukovych in essence abdicated and fled the capital, then fled to Russia. Many in eastern Ukraine question the legitimacy of the acting government. That may be due in part to Russian propaganda that ceaselessly portrays that government as a neo-fascist junta.

A free and fair election will change that perception. Ukrainians know how to conduct free and fair elections. From December 2004 until February 2010, Ukraine held five national ballots, two for parliament and three for president (or presidential run-offs) that were judged by domestic and international observers to meet Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) election norms. Ukraine can repeat that on Sunday, in what will be a heavily monitored election.

Ukrainians will vote in some 30,000 precincts, and preparations are well along in most places. In the western and central parts of the country, and in some parts of the east, expectations are for a normal election process. The major uncertainty involves the eastern oblasts (provinces) of Donetsk and Luhansk, where about 15 percent of the electorate resides.

Over the past month, groups of armed separatists, some with apparent support and leadership from Russia, have seized dozens of police stations, city halls and regional government centers in Donetsk and Luhansk. The groups have vowed to block the presidential election, and there are reports of armed men intimidating election officials, preventing the preparation of voting stations, and stealing ballot papers. While some in Donetsk and Luhansk may be able to vote, the guys with guns will likely prevent many from doing so.

This is an area where Moscow could help—but so far has done nothing. Russia has considerable influence with the armed separatists, some of whom profess a desire to join Russia. There is no evidence, however, that Moscow has used its influence to encourage the separatists to allow the vote to go forward. This fuels the suspicion that the Kremlin does not want to see a more stable government in Kyiv.

Another issue is Crimea. The Russians, who have illegally occupied the peninsula, will not allow polling stations there. The Ukrainian authorities plan to man extra polling stations in Kherson oblast, bordering on Crimea, for those who might cross over from the peninsula to vote. The anticipated numbers, however, are small.

Eighteen candidates are still in the running for the presidency (five of the original 23 have dropped out). Ukraine’s Central Electoral Commission should have a preliminary vote tally on Sunday night or Monday. If no candidate wins 50 percent plus one vote, the top two will face each other in a run-off on June 15.

In the final week before the vote, oligarch Petro Poroshenko appears to hold a commanding lead, polling over 30 percent. His nearest competitors, former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko and former banker Serhiy Tyhypko, each poll in single digits. If anything, Poroshenko’s lead has grown over the past two months, and it appears almost insurmountable.

Some analysts project that Poroshenko will win outright on Sunday. That would require that he win virtually all of the undecided vote in the opinion polls. If he does win outright on Sunday, it would be a first for a Ukrainian presidential election; every previous election has gone to a run-off.

Whether or not the election is decided in one round or two, a democratic election process and clear winner will be a big plus for Ukraine. It will remove the cloud of illegitimacy that hangs over the government as seen in the eastern part of the country. It could give a boost to the OSCE-initiated roundtable process that seeks to promote a peaceful settlement of the country’s internal differences.

On Monday the OSCE monitoring mission, which coordinates the work of most of the international election observers, will likely produce its preliminary assessment of the conduct of the election and whether it met OSCE norms. That pronouncement will shape the reaction of the United States and most European Union members. If the OSCE gives the election process high marks, so will the West.

Russia represents the bigger question mark. It is quite possible that 85-90 percent of the electorate will have the opportunity to vote, but that the separatists will deny substantial numbers of voters that right in Donetsk and Luhansk. That would provide enough for Moscow to try to call into question the legitimacy of the entire election. Should Russia dispute a result that is validated by the OSCE as free and fair, it will mean that the Kremlin intends to continue its efforts to destabilize the government in Kyiv. That unfortunately will extend the period of Ukraine’s crisis.