- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 25, 2004

KIEV — Ukraine’s highest court yesterday threw out some of the election-law changes aimed at battling fraud, handing a possible setback for opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko on the eve of the hotly contested presidential vote.

The Constitutional Court ruling posed a last-minute logistical challenge to election officials and could provide grounds for a protracted dispute over the results of the vote — a repeat of a November vote that was thrown out because of fraud.

The ruling came as Mr. Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych took a legally required day off from campaigning before today’s vote, and some 12,000 international observers — the largest election monitoring mission ever launched — fanned out across the country.

Today’s vote marks the culmination of a month of upheaval in Ukraine, marked by huge protests in the streets of Kiev by Yushchenko supporters, a Supreme Court ruling that voided Mr. Yanukovych’s victory in the Nov. 21 vote, tension between Russia — which backs Mr. Yanukovych — and the West, and revelations that Mr. Yushchenko, a pro-Western reformer, was poisoned by dioxin.

Yesterday’s court decision brought a new twist in the final hours before polls open. The court ruled that amendments allowing people with only certain disabilities to vote at home were unconstitutional, and it ordered that all who were unable to reach polling stations because of a disability or ill health be allowed to vote at home.

The ruling could benefit Mr. Yanukovych, who pushed for the restrictions to be lifted, saying they would deprive millions of their right to vote.

However, it could also throw an unexpected monkey wrench into his campaign team’s announced plans to help disabled voters reach polling stations. They are considered a key source of backing for Mr. Yanukovych because the prime minister raised pensions during his two years in office.

The Central Elections Commission was required to implement the ruling — but it has less than 24 hours to do so, registering would-be voters and mobilizing workers to bring ballot-boxes to their homes.

“We will fulfill the decision of the Constitutional Court,” said commission chief Yaroslav Davydovych. “We don’t have another alternative. The vote must be held.”

Yushchenko supporters had pointed to home voting as one of the tools purportedly used to commit widespread fraud in the Nov. 21 runoff.

The ruling does not affect other newly adopted restrictions on absentee balloting, which the opposition and Western observers said was a main vehicle for fraud.

Nestor Shufrich, a lawmaker and Yanukovych ally, said the court’s ruling would affect about 3 million people. He said Ukrainians who qualify had until 8 p.m. yesterday to notify their local election precinct that they wanted to vote at home.

However, it appeared unlikely that the cash-strapped Ukrainian government would be able to quickly solve the logistical problems — and that could become a basis for legal challenges to the election results.

Mr. Shufrich said that thousands who applied for home voting were refused yesterday “because polling stations and regional election commissions did not receive instructions from the Central Elections Commission.”

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