Ukraine's gulf has deepened today after local elections appeared to consolidate President Petro Poroshenko's rule in the west of the crisis-hit country while handing power in the east and the south to pro-Russia factions.
On a more surreal note, Chewbacca got detained on Sunday for not having the right ID after driving Darth Vader to the polling station.
Exit polls suggest a series of tense, second-round run-offs, and highlight the bitter divide between Ukraine's pro-European leadership and its pro-Russia parties, namely Opposition Bloc, which retains significant support in the embattled east. "The disposition of forces shows that the country is divided," said political analyst Vladimir Fesenko.
In a contest marred by farce and fraud allegations, more than 130 parties fielded hundreds of thousands of candidates in mayoral and council battles nationwide, outside of rebel-held territories where voting was postponed. Amid widespread disappointment with the Poroshenko administration, Sunday's elections are a crucial test of strength for Ukraine's post-revolutionary government and the country's powerful oligarchs, accustomed to running their own regions with relative impunity.
In a preliminary post-election report, the OSCE, the international watchdog monitoring Ukraine's conflict, reported "widespread allegations of vote-buying" as well as "threats and physical attacks targeting candidates and campaign workers."
Observers said the race was "dominated by wealthy donors and their associated business interests," warned that the lack of expenditure caps and transparency prevented a "level playing field," and criticized the "inconsistent implementation of candidate registration rules."
In Kiev, the incumbent mayor — Poroshenko ally and former heavyweight boxer Vitali Klitschko — appears to hold a commanding lead over the candidate of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko's Fatherland Party, but is falling well short of 50 per cent of the vote needed to win the first round. Overall, Tymoshenko and her allies are tipped for greater success than their disappointing sixth-place finish in last October's parliamentary elections.
The controversial, pro-Russia incumbent mayor of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second city, seems set for another term. Vidrodzhennia ("Renaissance") Party candidate Hennadiy Kernes has apparently secured a convincing win of almost 60 percent, with his party expected to control half the city council, while Poroshenko's Solidarity candidate trails in fifth position.
In the notoriously corrupt port city of Odessa, Hennadiy Trukhanov, an ex-Soviet army captain, appears to be leading against the reformist, Harvard-educated Sasha Borovyk. Victory for Trukhanov — regarded by critics as a remnant of the country's old guard — would deal a blow to Poroshenko's ally Mikhail Saakashvili, Odessa's flamboyant governor and the former President of Georgia.
Odessa's mayoral elections were hit by allegations of fraud as reports emerged of candidates offering sacks of potatoes and sugar in exchange for votes. Electoral commissions also allegedly refused to register some candidates.
In a bizarre twist, Star Wars characters descended on polling stations in the Black Sea city. Authorities banned one voter dressed as Darth Vader from casting a ballot, threatened to kick out stormtroopers from one station, and detained another man clad as Han Solo's hairy sidekick, Chewbacca.
Local media reported that candidates from pro-Russia Opposition Bloc and Our Land parties were leading the race in the key eastern, government-held cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, a war HQ for Ukraine's military. Both were the scene of heavy fighting when armed conflict broke out last year
The Ukrop political party (literally translated from Russian as "dill") is expected to win in the key industrial city of Dnipropetrovsk, the power base of Ihor Kolomoisky, one of Ukraine's most powerful, rabble-rousing oligarchs who funded battalions against Russian-backed rebels.
Ukrop's Borys Filatov tops the list of mayoral candidates with around 40 percent of exit poll votes, followed in close second by the Opposition Bloc, which absorbed remnants of ousted President Viktor Yanukovich's dissolved Party of Regions. Poroshenko's faction languishes in fifth place; a run-off seems likely.
Local elections in the strategic eastern port city of Mariupol were axed following fraud allegations and tensions over the influence of billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man whose industrial holdings are the lifeblood of Mariupol's economy. The cancellation sparked blows between Poroshenko's ruling party and rivals Opposition Bloc, each side blaming the other.
"Some sort of falsification was set up and we certainly can't allow this," said Poroshenko. Opposition Bloc accused the president's Solidarity faction of running a "dirty and unprincipled campaign," claiming that he canceled the election there to avoid defeat.
The local election commission refused to accept the ballots because they were printed by a company owned by Akhmetov, who supports the Opposition Bloc. "We clearly see in Mariupol the battle between forces for Akhmetov and forces against Akhmetov," said political analyst Oleksandr Solontai.
Voting in Mariupol — just a few miles from the frontline and long threatened with a rebel offensive — is expected to be rescheduled before the end of the year. Political conflicts also led to the postponement of elections in two other eastern towns, Krasnoarmiisk and Svatovo. No new voting date has been set.
In western Ukraine's nationalist heartland, Lviv's incumbent mayor and Samopomich Party leader, Andriy Sadovyi, is fighting for a third term. Criticized by some for becoming too distracted by national politics over municipal issues, he is in the lead but a second-round of voting is possible. The party of Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk did not field a single candidate after support plummeted to 1 percent from over 20 percent one year ago.
Ahead of the ballot, Poroshenko called for fair elections to "show the world that Ukraine is a free, democratic country." The popularity of his pro-Western government has fallen as critics point to the slow progress of reform, a languishing economy, and a perceived inability to tackle systemic corruption.
Sunday's election, which generally saw low voter turnout, was the third nationwide since the chaotic overthrow of Yanukovich in February 2014 in Kiev's Maidan revolution. The subsequent eruption of war in the east has killed more than 8,000 people and devastated the country's industrial center. Despite security fears, observers from OSCE reported "a calm election day" in government-controlled areas of the Donetsk region and in major cities across the country.
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