KIEV, Ukraine -- The good news is that nobody can predict the result of Ukraine's presidential election on Jan. 17, a sign of a healthy democracy. The incumbent, Viktor Yushchenko, who swept to power in the Orange Revolution in 2004-05, is almost certain to be voted out.
But a second round of voting is likely to be needed between Yulia Tymoshenko, the prime minister and former orange ally of Yushchenko, and Viktor Yanukovich, a former prime minister who was the anti-Yushchenko loser then. In the fluid world of Ukrainian politics, allies become enemies and vice versa.Russia strongly backed Yanukovich in 2004. This time, the Kremlin would settle for either front-runner and has also promised no gas war this Christmas.After years of political crisis, at least Ukraine is taking the election in stride. The protesters' tents that were once a fixture of Ukraine's political life are so far absent. Political fighting is fierce, as reflected by television channels that plug the interests of their powerful owners. But at least the overall coverage is diverse.The bad news is that the leaders of this country of 46 million, bordering the EU in the west and Russia in the east, have largely squandered the credit they won in the heyday of the Orange Revolution.Corruption is rife, the courts are bent, institutions are dysfunctional and the economy (dominated by Soviet-era steel and chemical factories) is sick. Instead of reforming Ukraine, politicians have fought over power and assets, blocking each other's decisions.This is exemplified by Yushchenko's recent actions, aimed at damaging Tymoshenko at any cost, even if they discredit the country.Yushchenko has even managed to sabotage the disbursement of a badly needed International Monetary Fund loan. The fund bailed out Ukraine to the tune of $16.4 billion, and was relatively lenient over its conditions.One thing it did ask was that the budget deficit be kept down. So when Yushchenko signed a law to increase public-sector wages, the fund had little choice but to suspend the final $3.8 billion payment.On paper, both Tymoshenko and Yanukovich are promising reforms. But Ukrainians know better than to believe promises. Tymoshenko's record in office is mixed. In two stints as prime minister, she reversed one of Ukraine's more controversial privatizations and scrapped an opaque intermediary in the gas trade between Russia and Ukraine. She has also held down public spending.But her bid to control prices, her rabble-rousing instincts and her scheming were all alarming. Not long ago she tried to forge a deal with Yanukovich to amend the constitution so that parliament would elect the president.According to a leaked document, parliamentary elections were to be held in two rounds, giving the winning party total control. The arrangement fell through only after Yanukovich walked away.The common wisdom in Ukraine suggests that, if Tymoshenko wins the election, she will consolidate her power, undermine the opposition and micromanage the government. There is no danger of micromanagement with Yanukovich, who represents the interest of big industrial groups in the Russian-speaking east.Worryingly, his political camp includes Ukrainian officials involved in the scrapped gas intermediary. Yet corruption is so rife that even the most scandalous allegations surprise nobody."The trouble is that 80 per cent of what Tymoshenko says about Yanukovich is true, but 80 per cent of what Yanukovich says about Tymoshenko is also true," says Yulia Mostovaya, editor of Zerkalo Nedeli, a weekly.The choice in this election is not, say some Ukrainians, who would do the best job but who would do the least damage. Whoever wins will have to amend the constitution that makes decisions in Ukraine so hard to reach.