Published: January 10 2010 18:36 | Last updated: January 10 2010 18:36
Five years ago, Ukraine’s presidential elections captured the imagination as Viktor Yushchenko emerged triumphant.
On Sunday, Ukrainians vote in the first presidential election since 2004 and in very different circumstances from the Orange Revolution. Mr Yushchenko’s failure to create stability, fight corruption or protect citizens against a rapacious bureaucracy has created widespread disillusion.
The gloom is compounded by the economic crisis, which has forced Kiev into an International Monetary Fund rescue programme.
Despite the political chaos, the Orange Revolution’s legacy has survived in a free media, openness to the outside world, and multi-party competition. Despite constant Russian interference, Ukraine’s sense of identity as an independent state has grown. And, despite the economic crisis, Ukraine is a richer place than five years ago, with a better stock of housing, cars and consumer goods.
But Mr Yushchenko’s political failures have left voters with a lamentable electoral choice. He stands no chance of retaining office. The top contenders are Viktor Yanukovich, the opposition leader, and Yulia Tymoshenko, the prime minister, Mr Yushchenko’s 2004 ally but now his bitter rival.
It is humiliating for Ukraine that Mr Yanukovich, whose 2004 presidential campaign was widely seen as fraudulent, has not been hounded out of politics. He has survived thanks to a cynical political culture and the backing of big business. Even Mr Yushchenko has done deals with him.
Ms Tymoshenko should, in principle, be a more attractive choice, given her Orange credentials. But she has proved herself shamelessly opportunistic and shares the blame with Mr Yushchenko for the failures of the Orange camp. Her economic policies show a unnerving penchant for populist intervention, eg with arbitrary price caps.
In international affairs, both would balance ties with Russia with a slow push for European Union integration. Not much to choose between Ms T and Mr Y on this score.
So, whom to back in Sunday’s first round and next month’s run-off? Given the candidates’ shortcomings, voters must focus on what is important. The key now is political stability. Only a stable Ukraine can achieve economic reform and recovery. Ms Tymoshenko is the polar opposite of a stabilising force. Mr Yanukovich, for all his manifest faults, may prove the lesser evil. Pity Ukraine that it has come to this.
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