Could Ukraine’s parliamentary elections in six weeks produce representatives from eastern Ukraine who might provide a clear alternative voice for that region, distinct from those of the thuggish, Kremlin-sponsored “people’s republics?” If so, that could offer President Petro Poroshenko a set of credible, more moderate interlocutors to bring into negotiations to come over the east’s political future within Ukraine.

But recent weeks have underscored the complications of achieving that. Ukraine’s long-dominant political machine, the Party of Regions, has collapsed following the flight and the revealed corruption of its former leader and Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych. As the party withdrew from the current election campaign over the weekend, a number of its former lieutenants and backers have been scrambling to create new parties. The east’s second-biggest party in recent years, the Communists, also have lost support and are facing a government effort to ban them for allegedly supporting the Russian-led separatist war.

This undefined new political landscape, plus the uncertainties of actually holding a vote in southeast Ukraine’s state of semi-war, make it unclear what representatives may emerge from the east from the October 26 vote.

The Party of Regions has won as little as 2 percent of voters’ support in opinion polls this month. It announced Saturday, in the voice of one of its prominent figures, Donetsk industrialist Borys Kolesnikov, that it would not participate in the election. Kolesnikov, a former close ally of Yanukovych, said the party would form an opposition “shadow government.”

Kolesnikov reflected how opponents of the Kyiv government are likely to attack the legitimacy of October’s election, which faces huge obstacles in recording votes from parts of the country under control of Russian forces and their local proxy militias. Ukraine will have no way to conduct a vote in Russian-occupied Crimea, is unlikely to open polls in the parts of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces controlled by the Russian led forces, and will face complications in recording votes from hundreds of thousands of refugees uprooted from their hometowns by the war. “What kind of parliament can we have, if a quarter of the country will not be represented in it?” Kolesnikov demanded in his press conference.

Among the figures trying to create new parties is Serhiy Tihipko, a former Party of Regions deputy chairman who was its candidate in the May presidential election, in which he received 5 percent of votes. Tihipko has managed to stay relatively untainted by his old party’s pro-Russian and authoritarian tilt under Yanukovych, and has relaunched a party he used to lead called Strong Ukraine. His declared priorities are a decentralization of power, industrial development, social harmony and national unity.

Another Party of Regions offshoot is the Ukraine Development Party headed by former Yanukovych chief of staff deputy Serhiy Larin. It is the brainchild of President Yanukovych’s former chief of staff, Serhiy Lyovochkin, a close aide to Dmitry Firtash, a Ukrainian telecommunications and energy magnate who is fighting extradition from Austria to the United States on bribery charges. It also seeks decentralization of power and calls for a policy of neutrality in foreign affairs and straddles the struggle over Ukraine’s alignment between Europe and Russia. It says it favors Ukrainian “integration” with the European Union, along with deeper cooperation with Russia. The Development Party aims to ally with five smaller groups to form an Opposition Bloc in Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada.

In June, a group of top managers and directors of southeast Ukraine’s major steel factories and other heavy industries registered a new Industrial Party. Those executives belong to companies owned by the Regions Party’s wealthiest longtime backers, including billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s wealthiest person, and Borys Kolesnikov and Vadym Novinsky. This party is focusing on developing strength and candidates for local elections next year, to take advantage of strengthened powers of local governments as Kyiv decentralizes power.

An opinion survey last month by the Ukraine unit of the German-based international market research firm GfK reflected the fragmentation of political support among Ukraine’s parties generally, and the virtual disappearance of the once powerful Party of Regions. The poll of 2,000 Ukrainians found Poroshenko’s own party with the most support, 16 percent, followed by the Batkyvshchina (“Fatherland”) Party of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, with 12 percent.  The strongest representative of eastern Ukraine was Tihipko’s Strong Ukraine, with 6 percent, while the Party of Regions polled 2 percent.

Irena Chalupa covers Ukraine and Eastern Europe for the Atlantic Council.

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