Ukraine’s Ruling Party on Track to Win Election

The president’s party performed particularly well in the Russian speaking east of Ukraine.

Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich’s ruling party was on track to win Sunday’s parliamentary election as results poured in on Monday, cementing his rule more than two years after he won a hotly contested election against former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Despite allegations of voter fraud, the governing Party of the Regions, which is particularly strong in the Russian-speaking east of the country, had secured 36 percent of the votes with a third of all votes counted, roughly corresponding with preelection polls and its performance in 2007’s election.

In the western Galician provinces of Ukraine, which used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the nationalist Svoboda party, comparable in ideology to the ruling national conservative Fidesz party in Hungary, cleared the 5 percent election threshold. In the rest of the country, the main opposition liberals, led by former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, performed well although they came in fourth nationwide.

The introduction of a first-past-the-post voting system may enable the ruling party to secure an absolute majority in the new parliament. It previously governed in coalition with the communists and other conservative parties.

Although Yanukovich is considered pro-Russian whereas Tymoshenko, who was found guilty of abuse of office and incarcerated last year, favored closer ties with the West, Sunday’s election is unlikely to user in a shift in Ukrainian foreign policy. While the Kremlin undoubtedly favors Yanukovich over the liberal opposition in its former satellite state, Russian-Ukrainian relations haven’t been as cordial in recent months.

In May, Ukraine’s prime minister Mykola Azarov urged Europe not to draw an “iron curtain” around his country after German president Joachim Gauck and other leaders had canceled a visit in protest to Tymoshenko’s ill treatment in prison. Azarov predicted that Ukraine would boost its natural gas production by as much as 25 percent over the next three years, largely thanks to shale gas extraction, thus decreasing its dependence on imports from Russia.

The Russians hold significant leverage over their neighbor as the suppliers of nearly two-thirds of the sixty billion cubic meters of gas that Ukraine consumes every year. Twice in recent years have they turned off supplies amid price disputes. Russian state oil company Transneft said in February that it was in talks with the Czech Republic and Germany to bypass Ukraine’s export infrastructure entirely. The company blamed Ukrainian siphoning of gas supplies for shortages in Europe last winter.

While policymakers in Moscow hope to pressure Ukraine into surrendering ownership of its gas transit system, even Yanukovich is reluctant to comply for fear of losing the only bargaining chip he has in the relationship.

In August, Ukraine’s government passed over Russia’s Lukoil company for a bid to develop hydrocarbon resources in the Black Sea, selecting the Western oil companies ExxonMobil and Shell instead and thus signaling a more independent policy of the Kremlin.