Soccer star Andriy Shevchenko's political debut is buoying President Viktor Yanukovych's bid to retain control of parliament in elections Ukraine says will reinvigorate strained ties with the European Union.
Shevchenko, 36, a former AC Milan striker, is running in Sunday's vote for Ukraine Forward, which aims to pass parliament's 5 percent entry barrier. That's hurting opposition united under jailed ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and improving the prospects of Yanukovych's Party of Regions.
Ukrainian officials promise a legitimate ballot that will breathe new life into EU relations torpedoed by Tymoshenko's incarceration. Yanukovych, whose ratings have slid amid worsening corruption and the threat of a recession, has changed electoral rules in his favor and curbed media freedoms, while his opponents have been imprisoned.
"It's difficult to consider Ukraine Forward as real opposition," said Jana Kobzova, program coordinator at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London. "Kiev needs to realize that this goes beyond election day — the EU also pays attention to cases of selective justice, freedom of expression or treatment of independent media."
Ukraine Forward's leader, Nataliya Korolevskaya, 37, built a food, agriculture and construction holding in Yanukovych's eastern heartland. She quit Tymoshenko's party last December before revamping Ukraine Forward for this week's vote. Korolevska's electoral program on her website says they aim to replace political leaders and start a new economic model.
Korolevskaya recruited Shevchenko after he scored winning goals in June's Euro 2012 soccer championships. Shevchenko endorsed Yanukovych's 2004 bid for president and featured with a Party of Regions candidate in a campaign calendar before joining Ukraine Forward.
The parliamentary vote marks the halfway point in Yanukovych's first presidential term. Since his February 2010 inauguration, Ukraine's benchmark stock index has lost about half its value as the nation's ranking in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index deteriorated to 152 from 134.
Falling steel prices are triggering a second-half recession after the economy grew 5.2 percent in 2011, Erste Bank said Oct. 16. Fitch Ratings estimates Ukrainian economic growth will slow to 0.5 percent this year, analyst Charles Seville said at a conference in Kiev today, adding that elections present "potential risk" if their conduct isn't "smooth."
Yanukovych's approval rating is 12.6 percent, down from 37.8 percent in 2010, according to the Razumkov Center for Economic and Political Studies, based in the capital, Kiev.
Reverting to rules under which half of lawmakers are elected in single-mandate districts, instead of by proportional representation, has boosted his party's prospects this week, according to Valeriy Chalyi, Razumkov's deputy director.
Independent candidates' complaints against the authorities in those districts have increased during the last month, the European Network of Election Monitoring Organizations said Oct. 8 in a report. They allege administrative pressure, harassment by tax bodies and voter bribery.
"I thought I knew all the election tricks, but Ukraine surprised me once again," Marek Siwiec, a European Parliament member monitoring the election, wrote Oct. 16 on his blog.
Yanukovych, whose 2004 presidential victory was annulled by the Supreme Court as part of the Orange Revolution, has also cracked down on independent media such as the Kiev-based TVi channel through tax-police searches and fines, and monopolized television airtime.
"The significant lack of political pluralism on television is very worrisome and requires immediate action," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said Oct. 12 in a statement. The elections "will be a litmus test of Ukraine's democratic credentials."
Besides Tymoshenko, who was jailed for seven years in 2011 for abuse of office while premier, courts have imprisoned Yuriy Lutsenko and Valery Ivashchenko, who both served in her Cabinet, drawing EU and U.S. criticism.
"No doubt, there are flaws," First Deputy Prime Minister Valeriy Khoroshkovskiy said in Oct. 18 interview. "We are trying to fix them promptly. Participation of single-mandate candidates adds difficulty."
Polls suggest the Party of Regions will preserve its hold on the 450-seat legislature. Yanukovych, who's raised social spending and introduced a higher status for the Russian language that prevails in his core eastern electorate, currently controls Parliament through a coalition with the Communists and the party of house speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn.
The Party of Regions has 23.3 percent backing, compared with 16 percent for world boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko, 15.1 percent for Tymoshenko's Fatherland and 10.1 percent for the Communists, according to a Sept. 18-Oct. 4 survey of 2,043 voters by the Kiev-based Democratic Initiative Fund.
While support for Ukraine Forward, where Shevchenko and Korolevskaya vow to improve the quality of health care, is below the 5 percent threshold, 24 percent of voters are undecided, the poll showed.
Ukraine is striving to ensure a clean election and sees the ballot reviving its EU Association Agreement, according to Khoroshkovskiy.
"I'm sure that if the elections are recognized as free and democratic, our partners will meet us halfway," he said in an Oct. 18 interview. "We expect to sign the agreements."
Ukraine has invited 4,000 international observers to monitor the vote and has installed web cameras at polling stations to guard against violations.
Still, only 8.8 percent of Ukrainians say the ballot will be fair, according to the Democratic Initiative Fund.