Ukraine looks to reform as pro-European parties secure commanding win in parliament vote

As Ukraine’s most ardently pro-European parties pocketed a resounding collective election triumph Monday, thoughts turned to a reform agenda that promises pain and progress in equal doses.

KIEV, Ukraine — As Ukraine’s most ardently pro-European parties pocketed a resounding collective election triumph Monday, thoughts turned to a reform agenda that promises pain and progress in equal doses.

Although the outcome of Sunday’s vote is in part fruit of a surge in anti-Russian sentiment, Moscow says it will recognize the result and urged Ukraine’s new order to grapple with the country’s most pressing problems.

With 72 per cent of the vote counted Monday, the three main Western-leaning parties alone stood to win a combined 54 per cent of the vote. Coalition negotiations were already underway.

Parliament is now largely purged of the loyalists of former President Viktor Yanukovych, who sparked months of protests — and eventually his ouster in February — with his decision to deepen ties with Russia instead of the European Union.

Of the European-minded parties, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s Popular Front had 21.9 per cent of the vote while President Petro Poroshenko’s party had 21.5 per cent. A new pro-European party based in western Ukraine was running third with 11 per cent.

The Fatherland party of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who has argued strongly for NATO membership and is likely to join a pro-Europe coalition, had 5.7 per cent of the vote.

Poroshenko last month laid out an ambitious agenda envisioning significant changes to Ukraine’s police, justice and tax systems, defence sector and health care — all to be completed by 2020. Among the tougher decisions ahead will be allowing the cost of utilities in the cash-strapped country to float in line with market dictates.

“Ukraine is pregnant with reforms,” said political analyst Oleksiy Haran. “The elections showed that both the government and voters expect structural changes to bring Ukrainians closer to the European Union.”

Haran said measures to simplify regulations for private enterprise and to attract investment need to be adopted first.

Hopeful businessmen in Ukraine complain that if excess red tape doesn’t kill their ventures at birth, corruption does so further down the road. For that reason, initiatives to curb graft and overhaul the justice system should follow suit, Haran said.

Poroshenko has also said he wants to see Ukraine become more self-reliant for its energy needs and farm out more powers to local government.

The precise recipe of policies to be pursued is subject of coalition negotiations.

Messages from Western governments congratulating Ukraine on its election pressed the reform theme further.

President Barack Obama said in a statement Monday that the United States would assist Ukraine “promote further democratic development, strengthen the rule of law, and foster economic stability and growth in Ukraine.”

Alluding to the unrest still raging in Ukraine’s east, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and European President Jose Manuel Barroso said a reinvigorated reform process must include an effort to establish national dialogue.

Despite the nominal truce agreed in early September, battles between government troops and pro-Russian separatist fighters remain a daily constant. Rebel authorities spurned Ukraine’s election and almost 3 million potential voters in areas under their control did not cast their ballot.

Talk of Europe is anathema to the separatists and there are some pockets of resistance to the broad consensus in Kyiv too.

Political analyst Mikhail Pogrebinsky described the elections as a “sad story” and said he had little trust in the government that will take shape.

“Under the guise of reforms, they will pump cash out of the West and plunder it the usual way, and then write it off as a cost of war,” Pogrebinsky said.

The most staunchly dissenting group in parliament will be the Opposition Bloc. That party attracted much of its votes from government-controlled areas in the east and has within its ranks several figures from Yanukovych’s once-ruling Party of Regions. With its 10 per cent of the vote, Opposition Bloc believes around 60 candidates on the party list will take up seats in 423-strong Verkhovna Rada.

The also-rans that didn’t make it into parliament are notable. The Communist Party failed to pass the 5 per cent vote threshold and finds itself unrepresented for the first time in the nation’s history.

Alarmism about a major surge among far-right wing forces has also proven overstated. By late Monday, the nationalist Svoboda party looked to have scraped 4.7 per cent of the vote, meaning only a handful of its deputies directly voted in first-past-the-post constituencies will make it.

Anton Shekhovtsov, an expert on radical parties in Europe, said that if Svoboda fails to exceed the 5 per cent barrier, there would likely be around 11 members of parliament in total from far-right parties.

“It was quite clear after the revolution that the far-right were not doing well, despite the media focus,” Shekhovtsov said.

International observers hailed Sunday’s election as a step forward in building democratic institutions. Kent Harstedt, who oversaw the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observer mission, said the election offered voters a real choice and showed “respect for fundamental freedoms.”

The OSCE said, however, that there were isolated security incidents on election day and instances of intimidation and destruction of campaign property ahead of the vote.

Russia had criticized Ukraine’s election campaign before the vote but Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday that Moscow would recognize its outcome.

“It is very important that in Ukraine, at last, there will be a government that is occupied not with … the pulling of Ukraine either to the West or to the East, but with the real problems that are facing the country,” Lavrov told Russia’s Life News.

Views among Ukrainians have ranged from content to cautious.

Anton Karpinsky, a 36-year-old doctor in Kyiv, said he was delighted that Ukraine will now have a pro-Western government.

“Our revolution and fight was not in vain,” Karpinsky said. “The election shows that Ukraine sees its future in Europe and NATO, and we will get there step by step.”

Stepan Burko, a 67-year-old retiree whose $140 monthly pension barely covers his food bills, worried difficult times remain ahead.

“The only certain winners in Ukraine are slogans. But it is much more difficult to overcome poverty and war,” Burko said. “If it weren’t for my children’s help, I would go hungry. These are the problems the new authorities should tackle.”

Some hoped that a strong government could negotiate an end to the war in the east.

“The main thing is to put a stop to the war. We are so tired of killings, shelling and weapons,” said Tatyana Rublevskaya, a 48-year-old shopkeeper.

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