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A worker of Illich Iron & Steel Works steel plant attends an anti-war protest in Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, Thursday, May 22, 2014. Ukrainian metals tycoon Rinat Akhmetov, riding a wave of public dismay with the fighting, issued a strong call against the mutiny in the east, which he described as a fight against the citizens of the region that has devastated Ukraine's industrial heartland.(AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Vadim Ghirda/The Associated Press

The Ukrainian presidential election on Sunday is a welcome, though fragile, opportunity to re-establish something resembling democratic legitimacy, following the flight in February of the former president, Viktor Yanukovych, into exile in Russia.

The need for legitimacy in Ukraine – and for a democratic political process – is greatest, however, where it is least likely to be achieved, in the southeastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. There, pro-Russian militants have seized government buildings and tried to displace the authorities loyal to Kiev. In the past few days, personnel of the Ukrainian armed forces in the region have seemed to be in greater danger from the militants than the other way around.

Nonetheless, most government officials continue their routine work, even in Donetsk, though the militants are not allowing the central government's appointed governor into his own office. But the election system in the two eastern provinces is in a bad mess. Reportedly fewer than half of the polling stations have received voters' lists.

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Even President Vladimir Putin of Russia has implied that he would recognize the victor in the election as the president of Ukraine. He has said that Russian forces are moving back from the Ukrainian border, which would provide "favourable conditions" for the presidential election, and called it "a step in the right direction." It is not clear that any Russian troops have actually backed off yet, and Mr. Putin has certainly not called upon pro-Russian militants to stop causing trouble.

Before the Ukrainian government can deal with the unrest in the south and east – and Kiev can only overcome the threats to the country's unity through a patient strategy of negotiation and federalism, not force – it needs the democratic legitimacy of elections. Canada's 500 electoral observers – 338 on an independent Canadian mission led by former Ontario premier Mike Harris and Senator Raynell Andreychuk, and 162 other observers for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe – are in a position to make a significant difference.

It would be fortunate if there is a clear victor in the presidential election, without need for a second round in June. It wouldn't be the last step needed to restore peace in Ukraine. But it would be a big first step.

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