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 marred swiftly by polls failing to open in the strategic port of Mariupol.
A smooth vote and show of support for Poroshenko's contested austerity measures and faltering anti-corruption drive could help his loosely-knit alliance gain momentum and keep the former Soviet republic on track for eventual EU membership.
The vote comes during a lull in fighting with pro-Russian eastern insurgents that has Kiev worried about Ukraine slipping off the global radar despite the perceived threat posed by Moscow and dire economic effects of the war.
But politicians were even more urgently concerned about what happens in Mariupol -- a vital outlet for the east's industrial output that provides a potential land bridge between separatist regions and Ukraine's Russian-annexed Crimea peninsula.
The southeastern city of 500,000 came under repeated attacks and one major takeover effort by the militias in the bloodiest days of the 18-month war.
And the partially-emptied city is still overseen by rival factions allegiant to various regional field commanders and oligarchs.
Poroshenko's Solidarity party said the Mariupol vote was pushed back "due to the improper preparation of election ballots, the absence of control over their printing and number, and reliable storage."
Washington's Ukraine Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt came out in strong support for what he called the Ukrainian leader's "commitment to ensuring that the people of Mariupol - like all citizens of Ukraine - are able to make their own democratic choice."
But locals and the pro-Russian party that had hoped to do well in the city both accused Kiev of simply calling off a vote it was about to lose.
"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."
- 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 a separatist crisis 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 soar and other belt-tightening measures bite under the terms of an austerity pledge Kiev gave to world donors in return for $40 billion (36 billion euro) in help.
The party of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk -- a top Poroshenko partner who beat the president's party in October's parliamentary vote -- has seen its approval languishing near zero and fielded 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."
Fatherland was given a boost when the first post-election exit polls showed its candidate forcing Kiev mayor Vitaly Klitschko -- the former heavyweight boxing champion and important ally of the president -- into a mid-November runoff.
The final results must be announced across all regions by next weekend.
© 2015 AFP