Ukraine’s parliamentary elections have cemented the country’s westward shift away from Moscow’s influence, producing a legislature set to be dominated for the first time by parties staunchly backing EU integration.
The polls were dominated by leaders who emerged from the protests that toppled Viktor Yanukovich, former-president, in February. With more than a third of votes in national party lists counted by early Monday, President Petro Poroshenko’s bloc and the party of prime minister Arseniy Yatseniuk were leading with a little more than 21 per cent each – with the premier’s party fractionally ahead.
The Poroshenko bloc performed less well than pre-election polls had forecast, while Mr Yatseniuk’s party was far ahead of expectations. That left the prime minister, seen as more hawkish towards Russia than the president, well-placed to keep his job.
Mr Poroshenko said that more than three-quarters of voters had “powerfully and irreversibly supported Ukraine’s path to Europe”, despite an economy in deep recession and Russian-backed separatists controlling parts of the country’s east. Grigory Karasin, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, said Moscow would recognise the elections, though some Russian officials questioned their legitimacy.
Samopomich, a new pro-western party founded by Andriy Sadovy, the mayor of Lviv in western Ukraine and composed largely of new political faces, was in a strong third place with about 11 per cent. But the Opposition Bloc, largely made up of former associates of Mr Yanukovich, also performed better than expected with almost 10 per cent.
They were followed by the populist Radical party of Oleh Lyashko, with the party of ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko, her political star waning, in sixth.
It was unclear if the nationalist Svoboda party would pass the 5 per cent threshold to enter parliament. The far-right Right Sector, a favourite bogeyman of Russian officials and media, was well short of the threshold, though its leader, Dmytro Yarosh, was poised to win a single-mandate seat.
Half of the 450 seats come from national party lists, with the other half from single-mandate districts, where initial indications were that Mr Poroshenko’s party had performed strongest.
But after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the pro-Russian uprising in the east, voting took place in only 198 of Ukraine’s 225 districts. Election officials estimated voter turnout at 53 per cent, less than expected.
Sunday’s vote took place nearly a year after huge pro-EU and anti-corruption demonstrations erupted in Kiev.
A complete overhaul of government through snap presidential and parliamentary elections was a central demand of the winter protests on the Maidan, or Kiev’s Independence Square. Protesters viewed EU integration as a chance to break from the Soviet past, years of dysfunctional politics and rampant corruption.
Mr Poroshenko said on Sunday that he hoped the election would produce a “united, powerful and efficient team to implement reforms and restore peace to Ukraine”.
Voting was generally reported to have proceeded smoothly, although there were isolated incidents. Two new candidates from Mr Poroshenko’s list, the investigative journalists Serhiy Leshchenko and Mustafa Nayem, an initiator of the Maidan protests, had their car pelted with stones in central Ukraine.
The leading pro-western parties were expected to hold swift coalition talks, aimed at creating a new government capable of facing the daunting challenges of restoring growth to the war-torn economy, fighting corruption and reaching agreement with Russia on restoring natural gas supplies.
Taras Berezovets, a Kiev political analyst, said: “The backbone parties for a new coalition will be the parties of Poroshenko and Yatseniuk, plus Samopomich, whose surprise strong result shows voters want fresh faces,” he added.
But a close result could complicate coalition talks, while the success of any new government could depend on the ability of Mr Poroshenko and Mr Yatseniuk to continue to work together.
Addressing voters at his party campaign headquarters late on Sunday after holding talks with the president, Mr Yatseniuk appeared agitated, answering only a handful of questions and swiftly leaving.
“I hope that only professional people capable of delivering reforms, capable of change, will enter the new [government] of Ukraine,” he said.
Preliminary results also suggested that the geographical divide in voter preferences between pro-western Ukrainian-speakers in the west of the country and more Russian-leaning voters in eastern regions remained prominent.
Although Mr Yanukovich’s Regions party had largely imploded and was not contesting the election, the Opposition Bloc formed by some of his former associates mustered the largest share of votes in many eastern regions. These included the city of Kharkiv and districts of the easternmost Donetsk and Lugansk regions where the vote took place.
Sunday’s vote took place against the backdrop of a shaky ceasefire in the conflict in east Ukraine, which has claimed more than 3,700 lives.
Though fighting has continued in defiance of a September 5 ceasefire, it is of lower intensity. Pro-Russia separatists have started entrenching themselves deeper in Donetsk, Lugansk and other cities between the provincial capitals.
Separatist leaders plan to hold their own elections in regions they control in November.