Ukraine polls marred by cancelled vote in key port
Western-backed Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's fragile ruling coalition faced a major survival test Sunday in local elections swiftly marred by polls failing to open in the strategic port of Mariupol.
A smooth vote and show of support for Poroshenko's unpopular austerity and anti-corruption measures could help his loosely-knit alliance gain momentum and keep the ex-Soviet republic on track to apply for EU membership by 2020.
The elections come during a lull in fighting with pro-Russian rebels, who control parts of the country's east, as fears grow in Kiev that Ukraine is slipping off the global radar.
Voters began to line up across government-administered regions apart from Mariupol -- the southeastern city of 500,000 which could act as a land bridge between pro-Moscow rebel regions and the Russian-annexed Crimea peninsula.
Poroshenko's Solidarity party said the Mariupol vote was pushed back to next month "due to the improper preparation of election ballots, the absence of control over their printing and number, and reliable storage."
The Ukrainian leader himself called the situation "categorically unacceptable" and demanded a swift investigation.
But locals and the pro-Russian party that had hoped to do well in the city both blamed Kiev.
"It seems that someone wants the city to remain rudderless and without proper authorities," said 90-year-old Olena Kholodenko after being turned away from a polling station.
Ukraine's Moscow-allied Opposition Bloc called the cancellation "a blow to the image of Ukraine as a democratic and law-bound country that could put the entire peace process (with pro-Russian insurgents) at risk."
Politicians in Ukraine are nervous about what happens in Mariupol -- a vital outlet for the east's industrial output, which had militias stationed on its northeastern outskirts throughout most of the war.
Mortar and rocket fire on the city in January, blamed by monitors on the insurgents, killed killed 31 civilians and wounded more than 100.
- Government support near zero -
The collapse of Poroshenko's alliance -- patched together with the help of both strongly nationalist and liberal pro-Western parties -- could have grave consequences that might result in the dissolution of parliament and create more uncertainty in the EU's backyard.
Twenty months have passed since the east European nation erupted in protests that ultimately toppled a despised Kremlin-backed leader and appeared to anchor Ukraine's future with the West.
But Russia's subsequent seizure of Crimea and the pro-Moscow eastern revolt that followed in which more than 8,000 died have seen the nation of 40 million stripped of its most strategic naval bases and industrial heartland.
The popularity of Poroshenko's government has plunged as utility bills have soared and belt-tightening measures prescribed by world lenders under a $40 billion (36 billion euro) rescue plan have bitten.
And Poroshenko's seeming inability to sideline a handful of influential tycoons has seen his own ratings slip to less than half of what they were when he became president in May 2014.
The party of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk -- a top Poroshenko partner who won October's parliamentary vote -- has seen his its approval languishing near zero and is fielding no candidates.
Frustration at the West's refusal to arm Ukrainian forces and only provide tightly-regulated financial help has further bolstered the election odds of the marginalised but militant far right.
Polls show that pro-Russian groups are also gaining momentum because of Kiev's effective economic blockade of rebel-run regions in which an estimated 3.5 million people still live.
- 'Brutal and dirty' -
Poroshenko's confident promise the day after his presidential triumph to stamp out the insurgency within a matter of days has also done little to help his cause.
The demoralised mood of voters has been picked up by an astounding 132 parties -- many of them using boastful slogans and colourful characters to draw in the media and prompt endless TV debates.
Yet few seem to focus on actual local concerns.
Former 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution leader and ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko has been insisting on a "professional army and fair tariffs".
The fiery but divisive political survivor is expected to do better than her Fatherland party's disappointing sixth place showing in last year's parliamentary vote.
"I think that if Fatherland's results are good, Tymoshenko could join the real opposition and pull out of the coalition government," Anatoliy Oktysyuk of Kiev's International Centre for Policy Studies told AFP.
"These elections are brutal and dirty. And they may not live up to our Western partners' hopes."
© 2015 AFP