Monday, January 18, 2010

LVIV, Ukraine | In a devastating rebuke of the Orange Revolution, President Viktor Yushchenko lost his bid to win re-election Sunday, and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and pro-Russia opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych appeared headed for a runoff vote in three weeks.

Mr. Yanukovych got 38 percent of the vote and Mrs. Tymoshenko received 24 percent, the Central Election Commission said, after 25 percent of the vote had been counted. The results reflected exit polls that showed Mr. Yanukovych leading the race with 31.5 percent, while Mrs. Tymoshenko garnered 27.2 percent. Mr. Yushchenko received only 6 percent of the vote.

Sunday’s vote puts in question Kiev’s political direction and opens the door for Russia to make a strong push in re-establishing influence over Ukraine.

During his presidency, Mr. Yushchenko had steered a strongly pro-Western course. Both Mr. Yanukovych and Mrs. Tymoshenko have said they will continue with Ukraine’s European integration. Both have also said relations with Russia are important, although Mr. Yanukovych is likely to push Ukraine closer to Moscow.

Russia has politically supported Mr. Yanukovych and his Region’s Party over the years. Still, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has publicly praised his working relationship with Mrs. Tymoshenko, which had led to concerns that her relationship with Moscow is too cozy.

A beaming Mrs. Tymoshenko told reporters the exit poll results showed that “Ukraine remains a European democratic country. This means that Yanukovych, who represents criminal circles, has no chance. I am convinced that Yanukovych’s hand will never rest on the [Bible] to take the presidential oath.”

Mr. Yanukovych appeared in public shortly after Mrs. Tymoshenko. Commenting on the exit poll results, he said, “Our citizens voted for change in their lives. I should do all to unite the country so it’s strong, independent and to better the lives of citizens. … I will build a strong country that will be respected in the world.”

Mr. Yushchenko’s loss in Sunday’s race marks the end of a tumultuous era that was filled with high hopes that were often unrealized. He was catapulted to power in 2004 during Ukraine’s legendary Orange Revolution. Hundreds of thousands at that time packed capital Kiev to protest an election that was rigged in Mr. Yanukovych’s favor. A runoff ordered by Ukraine’s Supreme Court resulted in Mr. Yushchenko’s victory.

Since then, however, many voters have soured on the president. Residents of western Ukraine, who voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Yushchenko in 2004, but are now split over his legacy, felt particularly disappointed.

“He did not live up to our expectations,” said Vasyl Mospan from the western Ukrainian city of Uzhhorod who said he did not vote for Mr. Yushchenko.

During the campaign, Mr. Yushchenko said the choice Ukrainians made now would determine the country’s direction for many decades. He painted both Mr. Yanukovych and Mrs. Tymoshenko as opportunists. He, however, often saved his harshest words for Mrs. Tymoshenko, his one-time ally. That has led many political observers to suggest the president has cut a political deal with Mr. Yanukovych that would ensure a prominent position for him should the latter become president. Both men have denied the allegation.

It is the relentless attacks on Mrs. Tymoshenko both in the media and by other candidates that led voters like Lida Tkach, 24, to vote for the prime minister. “She is focused. She stands for her principles. What I see is a woman who is sure of herself. She has a strong will. She goes to the end.”

Although Ukraine’s Central Election Commission said no major violations occurred on election day, analysts and some presidential candidates warned the results of Sunday’s vote could be challenged in court.

Of particular concern is potential falsification through a provision in Ukraine’s election law that allows the sick and elderly to vote from home by placing ballots in portable election canisters. The election commission noted that of the country’s nearly 32.6 million registered voters, more than 1 million people — a high number — had requested to vote from home.

According to the election commission, early returns show that nearly 66 percent of registered voters cast ballots.

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