KIEV, Ukraine -- Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire who made his fortune from chocolates, is so far ahead in the polls that he may win Ukraine’s presidency on May 25th without a run-off.
If he becomes the first elected official since the flight of Viktor Yanukovych on February 21st, his hardest task will be to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
But few easterners, whether pro- or anti-Ukraine, will vote for him.
Indeed, the question in Donetsk and Luhansk, where separatists have seized control of many buildings and gunmen are trying to impose the authority of two self-proclaimed republics, is how many people will be able to vote at all.
The premises of some election commissions have been attacked, some officials abducted and shot, and some commissions have collapsed because their members are terrified or support the separatists.
Rebels have also seized control of many voters’ rolls and stamps used to validate results.
Denis Pushilin, their leader in Donetsk, says people cannot vote for the president of a “neighbouring state”.
Yet the Ukrainian authorities say they are determined that all polling stations will open, even if not in their normal places.
If that happens many will be largely symbolic, as voters will not be able to get to them.
In Bilovodsk, in the north of Luhansk, Vladimir Nesmiyanov, head of the regional election commission, said on May 17th that he had not been able to deliver voting materials to 86 out of 197 polling stations.
He had been warned that, if he tried, the separatists were “waiting for him”: in other words he could be abducted, beaten or worse.
There has been no campaigning in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and posters mainly for only two candidates, one from Mr Yanukovich’s party.
Few people have cable TV; in Donetsk the rebels turned off the signal for Ukrainian channels and replaced them with Russian ones, so most viewers cannot follow any election debates or news.
The result, says Oleksandr Kliuzhev, a local analyst, is that his grandparents “live in an alternative reality”.
Another problem for those who want to vote in the two regions, home to 6.5 million people (15% of Ukraine’s total), is that many feel they have no candidate.
There is also widespread confusion.
Some who voted “yes” in the recent “referendums” for independence for Donetsk and Luhansk still plan to vote on May 25th.
This may be because they believed, wrongly, that they were voting only for autonomy.
In the run-up to the election, eastern Ukraine feels as though it is approaching a tipping-point, but it is hard to say which way it will go.
The military commander of Donetsk’s rebels, based in the stronghold of Slaviansk, has complained that he has fewer than 1,000 men and not enough volunteers.
On May 22nd, 13 Ukrainian soldiers were killed just north of Donetsk.
Across the region, ever more people are getting fed up with protracted instability.
One of these is Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man, who is based in Donetsk and is said to employ some 300,000 people.
He has been trying to steer a neutral course, but in the past week has come down firmly against the separatists, who are trying to force him to pay them tax.
His workers were told to come out on May 20th in a show of support for him, but the results were limp.
Nastia, a 17-year-old schoolgirl, speaks for many when she says that she is “fed up”, does not care much for either the Ukrainian government or the rebels, and above all just wants “no war”.
Source: The Economist