A paler shade of orange

The deft way in which Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, is trying to ensure he remains in power even after he has left the presidency will ensure that Ukraine remains a recurring theme in US-Russian rivalry. Its role in this geopolitical contest lessens further still the likelihood that Sunday's parliamentary elections will resolve the long-running power struggle between the president, Viktor Yushchenko, and the prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych.It is a tangled, tense struggle. Yushchenko swept to power when the orange revolution was triggered by the attempts of Yanukovych's backers to rig the 2004 presidential election. But he was forced to nominate Yanukovych as prime minister following the latter's success in last year's parliamentary election.

Yanukovych's Party of the Regions will remain the largest force, but if, as seems most likely, Yushchenko opts to enter into a coalition with Yuliya Tymoshenko, his partner during the orange revolution, they could form a government with a slim majority.

It's no secret that Yanukovych regards this pre-term election as the fraudulent outcome of a crisis manufactured by Yushchenko and his western backers to shore up pro-western parties. Fearing that Yanukovych's coalition government was about to increase its parliamentary majority to enable it to overrule the president and change the constitution, Yushchenko controversially dissolved parliament in April.

There have been suspicions that elements in the west, fearing that the Yanukovych government was endangering Ukraine's drift to the west, helped to conjure up a context in which Yushchenko could dissolve parliament. During the crisis, the west's promotion of democracy was certainly partisan and designed to promote its geopolitical interests against a resurgent Russia. Tymoshenko's support for the transfer of powers from the president to the prime minister in January appears to have been the first act in an elaborate power play that was scripted in Washington, in which the two orange revolutionaries have, perhaps unwittingly, been caught.

Yushchenko shouldered the responsibility for the unpopular decision to dissolve parliament, while hinting at a possible post-election coalition with the Party of the Regions to stop it boycotting the poll. Tymoshenko distanced herself from the crisis, but once the election date was set she ran a populist campaign that portrayed her as a democrat and Yanukovych as little more than a post-Soviet mafia don. Tymoshenko and Yushchenko campaigned independently until late last week, when they announced they would seek to form a coalition government.

The election may be challenged in the courts, raising the spectre of a protracted legal morass. Even the rapid formation of a new coalition may not guarantee stable government. The Party of the Regions will feel aggrieved that its pragmatic decision to participate in what it regards as an illegal election has resulted in ejection from office. As the resignation of 150 members of parliament was used as the final legal justification for staging the early election, in the new parliament Yanukovych and Tymoshenko will have an effective veto over its operation and the formation of any new government. Also a cabinet without any representation from the industrial and financial heartland in the east of the country, where the Party of Regions is most popular, will find it difficult to implement economic reform.

What will now be a three-way power struggle erodes the electorate's faith in their politicians and in their political parties, as a drop in turnout at the weekend showed. The political crisis, manufactured or otherwise, reinforces an east-west electoral divide that undermines the legitimacy of the state, prevents good governance and jeopardises economic development. Washington's script may have unfolded largely as directed so far, but the denouement has yet to be drafted. Triggering an election that would inevitably be regarded as illegitimate by many was bound to plunge the country into yet another spell of political disorientation.

The intention is to postpone the final scene until the west can be certain of the happy ending it seeks. It is not too late, however, for the country's politicians to ignore the self-interested overtures emanating from Russia and the west, and recognise their potential, and their responsibility, to become the authors of their own democratic future.

Adam Swain, a lecturer in the school of geography, University of Nottingham.