KYIV, Ukraine — Town hall elections are rarely known for high-profile showdowns with national implications.
But this Sunday in Ukraine could be different. Voters across the country will choose thousands of mayors and about 160,000 local lawmakers, and the results could shake up the ex-Soviet republic’s political landscape.
It’s been almost two years since an uprising that ousted a president, led to bloody separatist insurgency, and fueled hopes for political change in this famously corrupt country.
Some observers believe this weekend’s elections will reveal how far Ukraine has come since all the ruckus began. But early indications are not encouraging.
Well-connected tycoons with spotty records are vying for control over major cities. Former members of disgraced ex-President Viktor Yanukovych's party have regrouped in other parties and could gain a stronger following. And speaking of parties: More than 130 are on the ballot in various cities and regions, many of them new and politically negligible.
Since dirty electioneering is something of a local pastime here, there’s been a good dose of that, too.
In one western Ukrainian city, a local candidate provided free beer to interested voters. In the eastern city of Mariupol, activists raised a fuss over election ballots that were being printed at a press owned by a controversial local billionaire.
Still, pollsters are predicting a turnout as high as 75 percent. Given the current mood in Ukraine, that’s somewhat surprising.
“Ukrainians are also deeply alienated from national politics and frustrated by a lack of tangible progress on reforms and a lack of information about the ongoing reform process,” wrote Gwendolyn Sasse, a nonresident associate at the Carnegie Europe think tank.
It’s partly why the vote may give President Petro Poroshenko’s opponents — mostly the populists and pro-Russian crowd — a good boost. That, in turn, could eventually threaten his ruling coalition in parliament.
The vote also takes place against the backdrop of decentralization in Ukraine, which will eventually provide new local authorities with more powers, including control over purse strings. The reform was a key post-revolutionary stipulation made by Ukraine’s Western partners.
There's been a lull in fighting between pro-government and pro-Russian separatist forces in the east. The rebel-held regions are boycotting this vote and plan to hold their own next year.
Despite the obvious drawbacks of the vastly expensive elections, some are hoping the vote signals at least some positive change for a cash-strapped country that’s struggling to reform itself.
“This will be a very serious test for Ukrainian citizens that’ll show us whether the future has conquered the past,” said Vitaliy Bala, a Kyiv-based political expert, “or at least has a chance to win.”