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Stand-off in Ukrainian Election

DW staff (jam/jp)November 1, 2004

Early results from Sunday's presidential election in Ukraine point to a run-off vote next month between the two main candidates for president.

Viktor Yushchenko says he's confident of successImage: AP

As the count approached completion Monday, the current president's chosen successor, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, clung to a one percent lead over pro-Western opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, but neither man took the 50 percent needed to win outright in the first round.

The outcome of the expected run-off could decide whether the former Soviet state turns east or west, with the candidates offering Ukrainians the choice of either intensifying links with Moscow or moving gradually towards the West.

After the European Union issued several calls for Ukraine to ensure a fair and free contest, the OSCE sent one of its largest election observation missions ever.

Monitors say Sunday's election failed to meet international standards, reporting irregularities such as voter intimidation and people left off lists and therefore unable to vote.

Ukrainian authorities had placed security forces on high alert, with the building of the elections commission sealed off in case of rioting.

Dirty tricks

Ukrainians were able to choose among 24 candidates, but the real battle for the presidency is between Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, backed by President Leonid Kuchma, and liberal challenger Viktor Yushchenko.

The campaign was marred by accusations of dirty tricks by both sides, with Yushchenko falling ill several weeks ago in what he claims was an attempt to poison him. A center-right member of the Our Ukraine party, he was ahead in the polls early on, but the mysterious illness forced him to go to Austria for treatment and take a month off the campaign trail.

Wahlen in der Ukraine Viktor Janukowitsch
Viktor YanukovychImage: AP

Yanukovich (photo), 54, meanwhile, put the focus on material benefits, promising citizens that he would improve their standard of living, a message which resonates in a country where average monthly salaries average around $60 (€47).

He increased pensions last month and has promised public sector employees, teachers and health care workers they will get more money as well. He has said he will improve the country's infrastructure, which has been in decline since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Yanukovich has found a powerful ally in Russian President Vladimir Putin, who came to the capital, Kiev, for the 60th anniversary of the country's liberation from Nazi occupation. Putin took part in a live phone-in show on three channels of Ukrainian TV, an unprecedented event, where he praised the prime minister, although stopped short of an official endorsement. The message, however, was clear.

Liberal opposition leader Yushchenko described the visit as "untimely," one of the more diplomatic accusations flying from both sides.

Viktor Juschtschenko Präsidentschaftskandidat der Opposition
Viktor YushchenkoImage: AP

Yushchenko, a former prime minister and central bank chief, has promised to move Ukraine closer to the West if he is elected and pledged political and economic reform. He has said Ukrainians could enjoy living standards of nearby Poland and the Czech Republic.

Nasty tone

The poisoning accusation is only one of many which the two camps exchanged in a campaign that grew increasingly vitriolic as election day approached.

Yanukovich accused Yushchenko and his supporters of preparing to resort to violence if they lost. At a recent rally, he referred to them as "bastards preventing us from living normally." On a visit to western Ukraine, a stronghold of the opposition, Yanukovich was hit with a rotten egg and after an opposition rally in Kiev, minor skirmishes broke out.

Authorities said they would use force and declare a state of emergency if there were a threat to public order in the days leading up to and on election day.

Fairness in doubt

Präsident Leonid Kutschma Ukraine
Ukrainian President Leonid KuchmaImage: AP

The media was also criticized as being biased toward Yanukovich. Since the majority of the main television channels are pro-government, and outgoing President Kuchma (photo) threw his support behind Yanukovich, the opposition standard bearer had difficulty getting air time.

Yushchenko called on his supporters "not to stay silent" if they saw irregularities during the election and accused the authorities of trying to buy votes.

"This election is the dirtiest, most immoral and dishonest of all post-Soviet campaigns in Ukraine," independent analyst Volodymyr Polokhalo told Reuters recently.

"Sunday's outcome is a clear setback for Yanukovich, who clearly expected another result," he said Monday.

The run-off is expected to take place on Nov. 21.