Despite candidates pumping iron and making wild pledges to improve the economy, a controversial vote to elect a prime minister in Ukraine's rebel-held east has failed to garner interest locally and is attracting widespread criticism from authorities in the West, who have condemned the vote as farcical.
Scheduled for November 2, the vote will be the first of its kind in the separatist republics. Public representatives have so far been appointed internally under a strict regime of martial law imposed shortly after the outbreak of war in mid-April.
Residents of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) and its counterpart in Luhansk (LPR) will have the opportunity to cast two ballots Sunday. One will be for a candidate of their choosing for the position of prime minister. The second is for a political party, from which ministers and members of parliament — known in the rebel states as the "Supreme Soviet" — will be selected.
Only three candidates and two parties are left standing in the vote after several applications to run were rejected either for falsified paperwork or failure to provide all requested documents, the DPR Central Election Committee (CEC) said.
The CEC has also announced an online and postal voting system to allow those displaced by the conflict to cast their ballots. Mobile polling stations are expected to pay a visit to refugee camps in Russia, though it remains unclear when, where, or how votes would be cast in these locations.
The vote is unlikely to change the status quo. There have been no pre-election polls, but most locals said they would cast their ballots in favor of the Donetsk Republic party, which was founded by Andrei Purgin, a longtime pro-Russian activist and vocal of opponent of the Orange Revolution in 2004.
Incumbent DPR prime minister Alexander Zakharchenko will likely remain in office. His face is ubiquitous on local billboards in a competition where his rivals are political unknowns.
"I'm not sure if I'll vote, but if I do it will be for Zakharchenko since I have no idea who the other [candidates] are," Oksana, a 32-year-old mother of two from Donetsk told VICE News. "The neighbors don't know what to do either, we're all a bit confused and anxious. I don't really think this will change anything. In the end I just want the war to stop and my kids to have a normal life with no shelling."
'I just want the war to stop and my kids to have a normal life with no shelling.'
On the campaign trail last week, the burly Zakharchenko dressed in military fatigues during a visit to Ilovaisk, a small town 30 miles southeast of Donetsk that was devastated by heavy shelling over the summer as pro-Kiev and rebel forces battled for control of the area.
Flanked by armed guards in the pre-election visit to the town, where many residents are living in makeshift accommodations without electricity and running water after their homes were reduced to rubble, Zakharchenko made fantastic promises of a revival. He vowed to use Ukrainian prisoners of war to rebuild the local train station, and rapidly reopen shops and businesses, which would then offer a 10 percent discount on groceries for residents.
"We're like the [United Arab] Emirates. Our region is very rich. We have coal, metallurgy, and gas. The [only] difference between us and the Emirates is they don't have a war there and we do," he told a small gathering of doctors and nurses at the local hospital before moving on to embrace Babushkas and local children.
A former mine engineer and head of the Donetsk branch of the Russian nationalist paramilitary group Oplot, Zakharchenko was appointed prime minister in May. He replaced Russian citizen and alleged Kremlin intelligence agent Alexander Borodai in a move that was widely interpreted as an attempt to renew the local authenticity of a rebel movement increasingly seen as Moscow-led.
Little is known about the two other prime ministerial candidates, Alexander Kophman and Yuri Sivokonenko, who have both opted for low-profile campaigns that are unlikely to win them votes.
In a bizarre YouTube clip, Sivokonenko, a businessman and former youth group leader, can be seen bench-pressing weights in front of a small crowd of bemused school children who sneak snapshots of the portly politician on their phones while an anxious teacher raises a lackluster applause.
While the election has failed to rouse much interest among locals, it has sparked a predictable flare up in international tensions. Russia has offered verbal support for the rebel vote, while the West has condemned it.
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov was quoted in Russian media outlets as saying the vote is "important for legitimizing the authority" of the rebel republics. He said Moscow would "of course recognize their results."
The United Nations and European Union have said that the election violates the Minsk Agreement — a ceasefire deal signed by both the warring parties on September 5 that outlines plans to hold nationwide local elections on December 3.
In a statement released Saturday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that the vote would only sour international and regional relations that are already bitter.
"The Secretary-General deplores the planned holding by armed rebel groups in eastern Ukraine of their own 'elections' on Nov. 2, in breach of the constitution and national law," the UN statement said. "These 'elections' will seriously undermine the Minsk Protocol. The Secretary-General urges all to uphold these agreements and work toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict."
The rebel authorities have brushed off criticism of the vote, which will reportedly be attended by eight representatives from the Russian Duma and "independent monitors" from other breakaway states, including Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh.
"The elections here are the same as in any other country, we have strict standards and observers coming to watch over the vote," Roman Liagin, head of the DPR CEC told VICE News. "These elections will not just meet the standards of Europe they will be better and European elections won't meet our standards."
Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem