- The Washington Times - Monday, April 1, 2002

From combined dispatches
KIEV Ukraine's Communist Party, allies of President Leonid Kuchma and a pro-Western opposition leader jockeyed early this morning for the lead in boisterous parliamentary elections, according to preliminary results.
Yesterday's election was seen as a gauge of Mr. Kuchma's popularity after eight years leading 50 million people in his Texas-sized nation that is strategically situated on Europe's eastern flank.
The final outcome was seen hinging on whether voters stuck with his controversy-shadowed but stable leadership or opted for reform.
With 11 percent of the vote counted, the Communist Party had 19.6 percent. The pro-presidential For United Ukraine and the reformist Our Ukraine party of ex-Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko each had 19 percent, according to Election Commission Chairman Mykhailo Riabets.
The Socialist Party of oppositionist ex-parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz had 8.5 percent and the fiercely anti-Kuchma party of ex-deputy premier Julia Tymoshenko had 5.4 percent.
Earlier, exit polls gave the lead to Mr. Yushchenko, who earned the loyalty of Ukrainian voters by helping implement economic reforms that paid previously withheld salaries and pensions.
Mr. Yushchenko even claimed victory, saying the exit polls showed that Ukrainians wanted a brighter future after years of widespread corruption and economic decline under Mr. Kuchma, the country's longest-serving post-independence leader.
"We can say we won. I think that Ukraine's political image is changing for the better," Mr. Yushchenko said on independent television.
"No matter how this vote has progressed and will be counted, I think the Ukrainian democracy has received a substantial chance," he said, hinting that earlier suggestions of ballot-rigging could still affect the final result.
Mr. Kuchma's popularity has declined in recent years after his pledges to raise living standards and combat corruption fell flat.
The former missile-plant boss survived mass street protests last year over his reported involvement in the murder of Internet reporter Georgiy Gongadze, whose headless corpse was found in November 2000. Mr. Kuchma has denied any part in the death.
The president could now find it difficult to persuade a hostile chamber to pass constitutional changes allowing him to seek a third term. Prospects of a deal granting him immunity from prosecution once out of office could also fade.
Yesterday, Mr. Kuchma forecast that For United Ukraine, led by the head of his presidential administration, would win the election.
Single-member constituencies provide half of the 450 seats in the Verkhovna Rada, or parliament.
Some voters, who had been stopped from voting because of overcrowded polling stations, feared earlier accusations of ballot-rigging could be borne out.
"It is impossible to cast your vote here," said Yelena, standing in a throng of angry would-be voters in central Kiev, the capital.
Olga Shapalova said she thought the authorities would stuff ballot boxes with unused papers.


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