The high-stakes game of building a ruling coalition on the results of Sunday's parliamentary election in Ukraine begins with a few small parties holding high political cards.

The major power groupings in the country finished up roughly as pollsters expected.

The pro-Russian party Regions Ukraine is set to fill roughly 32 per cent of the next parliament's seats, the populist Julia Timoshenko Block scored a powerful 23 per cent, and reformist Our Ukraine managed a disappointing 15 per cent despite leading the so- called Orange Revolution little more than a year ago.

Regions, led by former prime minister Viktor Yanukovich, supports government assistance to heavy industry, making Russian the country's second official language, friendly relations with Moscow, a weak national currency to promote exports and a slow approach to the European Union. Yanukovich also takes a kid-gloves attitude toward corruption to avoid interfering with big business.

The seventh candidate on the Regions ticket is Rinat Akhmetov, a steel and coal baron considered to be Ukraine's richest man.

Contrasting sharply with the Regions party is the one-woman platform of the Timoshenko block: a no-holds-barred government campaign against tycoons like Akhmetov, who according to Timoshenko became fabulously wealthy during the 1990s by turning billions of dollars of state-owned industry into their personal capital, without paying for it.

Both Yanukovich and Timoshenko have flatly and repeatedly rejected any notion of coalition talks between Regions and the Timoshenko Block. Timoshenko even went so far as to declare that she 'wanted criminals out of government, not in my coalition' - a harsh dig at prison time served by Yanukovich in the 1970s.

Events were moving fast early Monday in the wake of the vote, as Timoshenko declared she was 'absolutely ready' to ally with Our Ukraine to rebuild last year's 'Orange Alliance'. She deftly ignored the fact that she was sacked in September from Our Ukraine, the Orange government and the prime minister's office after she accused several other Our Ukraine cabinet members of corruption.

It would be a bitter pill to swallow for the pro-free market, conservative, contract-respecting Our Ukraine to become the junior partner in a new coalition with Timoshenko, who in her last stint in government tried to fix food and petrol prices and still advocates reneging on a sensitive natural gas deal with Russia.

But the alternatives for Our Ukraine - to ally with the pro- Russian, pro-oligarch Yanukovich, or to exit government altogether - seem even even less palatable than serving under Timoshenko.

Roman Besmertny, a top strategist in Our Ukraine, declared his party's willingness to form a coalition with Timoshenko as prime minister, only hours after Timoshenko made clear she was willing to let bygones be bygones.

But no matter how they align themselves, the big parties will not have enough seats to form a coalition without the help of three or four little parties. The small groups that clear the 3-per-cent hurdle in the final vote count to enter parliament will be the final kingmakers of Ukraine's next government.

The Socialists, headed by the reputed 'nicest man in Ukrainian politics', Oleksander Moroz, appear to be bringing around 5 per cent of the popular vote to parliament. That could be enough give any two of the three big parties a ruling majority.

Until the government splintered last year, Moroz's Socialists were part of the Timoshenko-Our Ukraine majority.

Moroz's constituency is relatively small but enduring and conservative, with a heartland in Ukraine's rural and central regions. Moroz's Socialists have affinity with Timoshenko for sticking it to the rich, but are closer to Yanukovich's slow, skeptical approach toward the EU and land reform.

Moroz has said that he is 'willing to talk with anyone.' Historically, the Socialists have allied with centre-right parties like Our Ukraine.

Another likely parliament player, Ukraine's Communist Party, has for more than a decade has followed a flexible approach to coalitions: find the side willing to pay more for Communist participation, and then exploit Marxist-Leninist ideology to justify the alliance to its small but highly loyal constituency.

The highest bidder in Ukraine politics has usually been Yanukovich's big business-financed Regions party, with which the Communists have partnered in the past.

Even less predictable are what coalition partners would be acceptable to an even more left-wing organization potentially set to enter parliament: the Opposition Block of Natalia Vitrenko, a Maoist party given to calling Ukraine's Communists insufficiently red, and the rest of the parties in the next parliament enemies of the masses.

Two or three even smaller parties might yet also be in the mix, according to some exit polls.

Whatever the final mix of building blocks, Ukraine's next coalition cabinet is unlikely to be stable.
By Stefan Korshak, M&C News

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