Sunday, February 7, 2010

Election Day

The children clambered back up the hill behind the opera hall and waited patiently for their next turn on the ice. One by one, or sometimes in pairs, they slid down a steep icy slope. Some went face first, others crouched on their feet, and few bothered with actual sleds. All around, parents and grandparents looked on, laughing as the kids spun and slipped down the embankment.

Across the park at Independence Square, Kharkov’s primary claim to fame as the largest public square in Europe or the World (depending on who you talk to), similar tension filled the air. The Lenin statue watched over the ice skaters twirling and falling on the outdoor rink. The shops that lined the square were quiet, as you would expect on any Sunday afternoon. I walked the streets of Kharkov for hours today, camera in hand, ready to catch some of the political tension that the newspapers said was rife in Ukraine these days, but what I found--indeed, what I really expected to find--was people enjoying a sunny day off. No people gathering for protests, no trouble at polling stations, no sign even that it was election day. 

Kharkov is the heart of Victor Yaunkovich country, the largest city in East Ukraine ,where people generally speak Russian, the economy is driven by heavy industry, and the city is only 40 kilometers from the border with Russia. There have been campaign signs and political booths set up in the few weeks since I arrived here on the eve of the primary elections, but otherwise, nobody is excited about this election. Yaunkovich handily won the primary, beating his challenger by 10 percentage points over one of the leaders of the Orange Revolution, which ousted him only six years ago after a fraudulent vote. 

But with one exception (the real estate agent who manages my apartment building), the prevailing attitude was of disgust. Vote for Yaunkovich and you are voting for a mafia-tied strong man whose educational credentials are suspect and who served time as a youth for criminal violence. Vote for Yulia Tymoshenko, the stunning blonde with trademark braid and the rhetorical skills of Reagan (or so I am told), and you are voting for a savvy, wealthy gas magnate whose bickering with former Orange compatriot and current President Viktor Yuschenko has kept the country in political gridlock as the global financial crisis has crippled Ukraine’s economy. And she has her own mafia chieftain backer, too. 

Nothing in this campaign has suggested politics will get smooth soon. For months, it seems the two main candidates, as well as the president, have simply thrown charges of vote manipulation while doing everything in their own powers to manipulate the vote for themselves. Yaunkovich pushed through several election law “reforms” in the days leading to the vote, and Tymoshenko charged that Yaunkovich people murdered one of her campaign staffers today, and her camp also has vowed to challenge the results of the election before any of the votes come in. The current president canned the governor of my district yesterday, but he refused to step down. And Yaunkovich muscle has also been brought into Kiev to make sure the election tabulating is fair. Kinda reminds me of the ’04 Bush-Kerry election, but with the usual Eastern violence and threats of violence thrown in. 

I guess they both have some kind of platform--Yaunkovich for law and order and a balanced policy between the West and Russia, Tymoshenko for good governance and more integration with the EU while maintaining a good relationship with Moscow. I’m not even sure how different their platforms actually are. But nobody seems to believe or care. They just want “a chicken in every pot,” something neither seem to be able to deliver or seems to even promise with concrete policy ideas. 

Reminds me a little bit of how politics works in America--candidates controlled or hamstrung by their financial backers (we call the mafia here corporations; at least the Ukrainians are a little more honest with the names), with only sidelong interest in what voters actually care about. Our Jeffersonian democracy died a long time ago; Ukraine’s never even got a chance to grow. 

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