Ukraine votes in historic presidential rerun

12-26-2004, 17h24

Ukrainians voted for a new president in a closely-watched repeat election to decide whether the strategic ex-Soviet republic breaks with the past and aligns itself with Western democracies or remains under Russia's sway.

Exit polls were expected to be published at the 8:00 pm (1800 GMT) close of the vote with the first official returns anticipated within a few hours after that. Surveys conducted ahead of the vote showed the Western-leaning opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko was favored to win.

Ukrainians fatigued by weeks of political upheaval said they went back to the polls for the third time in less than two months because the fate of their country was at stake in the choice between Yushchenko and the pro-Russian government candidate, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich.

"Everybody is tired, and I hope this will be the last round," Lidia Karpenko, a 55-year-old architect said outside a voting station in Kiev.

"I am voting for a better life, if not for me then for my children and grandchildren," Karpenko said.

The repeat vote was ordered after a runoff election on November 21 that officially gave victory to Yanukovich drew hundreds of thousands of Yushchenko supporters into the streets in "orange revolution" protests and was later ruled fraudulent and thrown out by the supreme court.

Yushchenko, 50, has promised to lead this country of 48 million people towards membership in the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) while the 54-year-old Yanukovich has vowed to preserve and strengthen historical ties with neighboring Russia.

Speaking to reporters as he cast his ballot in Kiev, Yushchenko said he was certain the voting would yield a "victory for democracy in Ukraine" and downplayed concerns over a last-minute court ruling modifying part of a new election law as a mere "fly in the ointment."

Election officials said the rerun was proceeding as planned and outgoing President Leonid Kuchma voiced hope it would prove conclusive.

"God willing this will be the last election" to choose his successor, Kuchma said as he cast his ballot in Kiev. "I am sure it will be."

Casting his own ballot earlier, Yanukovich complained about the 11th-hour change to electoral laws, a ruling by the constitutional court easing restrictions on home voting that he favored, saying it was too little, too late. But he too voiced confidence Sunday's vote would be legitimate.

"I think the Ukrainian people will have a proper election," he said. "I have voted for our future, the future of the Ukrainian people."

The central election commission said turnout of the country's 37.4 million registered voters was nearly 55 percent after seven hours of balloting.

Sunday's election rerun was ordered after a previous vote was marred by large-scale fraud and a mysterious poisoning episode that triggered mass street protests and exposed deep divisions within the former Soviet republic itself, and between the West and Russia.

In addition to Yushchenko's face being disfigured after he ingested dioxin poison, the runup to the previous vote was punctuated by what independent observers described as blatant bias by state-influenced broadcast media in Yanukovich's favor.

The Ukrainian Press Academy said Sunday however that coverage of the vote on Ukraine's main television networks had been far more balanced this time around.

Yushchenko is most popular in the agrarian, Ukrainian-speaking nationalist western portion of the country, some of which was not even part of Ukraine until it was annexed by the Soviet Union before World War II.

Yanukovich's strength lies mainly in the coal-rich, industrialized, Russian-speaking east and south -- areas traditionally close to, or part, of the Russian empire.

The vote also has ramifications abroad as the United States and western Europe push for accelerated development of Western-style democracy and free markets in Ukraine against a wary Russia bridling at what it regards as foreign encroachment into its strategic backyard.

The vote was being watched by an unprecedented number of observers from dozens of international institutions, organizations and governments -- more than 12,500 were registered to watch this vote, compared with 5,000 for the previous ballot -- who have fanned out around the country.