This month's presidential election in Ukraine may not have the drama of 2004, but there is still a lot riding on the result.Five years ago, Ukrainians took to the streets in their hundreds of thousands to resist attempts by Leonid Kuchma, the country's autocratic president, to have Viktor Yanukovych, the prime minister, installed as his successor following a rigged election.
The Orange Revolution ended when Yanukovych conceded defeat and Viktor Yushchenko moved into the president's office, transforming the country into one of the most democratic of the former Soviet republics.Today, the roles have been reversed. Yushchenko's approval ratings are in the low single digits and Yanukovych has a big lead in the polls ahead of the 17 January election.Most observers expect that Yanukovych, who heads the Party of Regions, the largest group in parliament, will have to go into a run-off, scheduled for 7 February, against Yulia Tymoshenko, the current prime minister.There has been little change in the polls in the past two months, with Tymoshenko trailing Yanukovych by around 10%. But around a third of respondents said that they had not yet settled on a candidate, and the outcome is by no means certain.Tymoshenko is a strong campaigner with a populist streak. Yanukovych, by contrast, has never managed to shake off his image as a communist apparatchik, despite bringing in campaign advisers from the US. The supporters of the other presidential candidates are also more likely to back Tymoshenko than Yanukovych if the vote does go to a second round.Yanukovych has been seen as the more pro-Russian of the two candidates. His power-base is in the east of the country, while Tymoshenko has fashioned herself as a pro-Western reformer. But both have campaigned in regions where they have weak support, and they seem to be competing on who is closest to Russia and its prime minister, Vladimir Putin.Infighting and turmoilIdeological differences are difficult to discern. “This is not the great drama of 2004,” says Andrew Wilson, a Ukraine specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a London-based think-tank. “The candidates are not miles apart in their vision for the country.”Five years of economic dislocation and political turmoil – and the almost constant, vicious in-fighting between Tymoshenko and Yushchenko, erstwhile allies in the Orange Revolution – have turned many people off the Ukrainian flavour of democracy, with its pervasive dualism between the president on the one hand and parliament and prime minister on the other (see box).It is not clear how such people, whose main concern is stability, will vote. What is clear is that the new president will need to tackle an economy that has been brought to its knees by the financial crisis and a dysfunctional political system, the product of Ukraine's tumultuous – though peaceful – transition to democracy.Kuchma left office at the end of 2004 in exchange for a move that was designed to curtail the power of the presidency. The constitutional amendments entered into force early in 2006, just before a parliamentary election that eventually brought Yanukovych back as prime minister, a job he lost at the end of 2007 to Tymoshenko.The amendments made the prime minister and the government far more accountable to the parliament (the Verkhovna Rada). The parliament now has the power to approve the prime minister and cabinet ministers (before the change, only the prime minister was subject to parliamentary approval).But the amendments left control of the ministry for foreign affairs, the ministry of defence and the security services in the hands of the president. (The president also appoints the governors of Ukraine's 24 oblasts, or regions, and of Crimea, an autonomous republic.) The system has not been a success and Tymoshenko has found it difficult to work with the members of her cabinet who answer to the president.The personal animosity between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko has added to Ukraine's political troubles. But the real problem lies with the country's system of government. Amending or redrafting the constitution will have to be a priority for the new president and he or she may also want to call an early election to gain the necessary backing in the parliament. (The next scheduled parliamentary election is in 2012.)Economic woesIn the meantime, Ukraine's economic slump requires urgent action. The most pressing issue is securing a new instalment of a €11.3 billion loan which the government needs to pay its debt to Gazprom, Russia's energy giant.The International Monetary Fund (IMF) froze the latest instalment of the loan in November because it was worried about populist measures voted in by Yanukovych's Party of Regions and signed into law by Yushchenko, primarily to spite Tymoshenko. Her government does not have the money to implement the 20% rise in wages and pensions foreseen in the new laws.Equally urgent are structural reforms that are needed to put the country's economy on a sounder footing following the collapse last autumn of global demand for Ukraine's main export, steel. The IMF thinks that Ukraine's economy contracted by 15% last year.