Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Ukraine faces new crisis as Yanukovych claims narrow poll victory

Ukraine faced the prospect of fresh political confrontation on the streets after the result of its fiercely contested presidential election teetered on a knife edge today.

According to exit polls published immediately after voting ended Yuliya Tymoshenko, the glamorous, firebrand leader of the Orange Revolution, was narrowly beaten by Viktor Yanukovych, her bitter rival. But the margin of defeat was as little as three percentage points, paving the way for a potential challenge in the courts — and in the streets if her campaign claims widespread electoral fraud.

Two polls gave her 45.5 per cent against 48.7 per cent for Mr Yanukovych, while two others put him between four and five percentage points ahead. While all four polls gave the election to Mr Yanukovych the result was tighter than either side had predicted.

Mr Yanukovych’s campaign hailed an “absolute victory”. His political aide Anna German said: “That leaves Tymoshenko with no chance... She will get nothing in the courts.”
Ms Tymoshenko refused to concede defeat, saying that it was too early to call the result. She urged supporters to “try to protect every vote because this is what is going to determine the future of Ukraine”.
Her campaign chief, Oleksander Turchynov, added: “The result of the majority of exit polls are within the margin of statistical error. Conclusions about who the victor is can be made only on the basis of the real results of the Central Election Commission.”

Ms Tymoshenko, 49, threatened last week to lead a second Orange Revolution after accusing Mr Yanukovych of preparing massive ballot-rigging to steal the presidency. With tensions soaring, there are fears that the highly charged contest will spill over into violence on the streets after both sides accused each other of bussing in thousands of supporters for demonstrations.

Hundreds of Mr Yanukovych’s supporters were gathering outside key government buildings in Kiev last night as well as the Central Election Commission. The Interior Ministry disclosed that his Party of Regions had submitted plans to gather 50,000 people outside the election commission headquarters for a demonstration today.

The election had been billed as a verdict on the pro-Western revolution led by Ms Tymoshenko and her former Orange ally Viktor Yushchenko against Mr Yanukovych’s fraudulent, Kremlin-backed victory in 2004. History may now repeat itself if the ballot-box verdict is challenged on the streets.

Mr Yanukovych, 59, had been favourite to win the presidency since leading the first round of voting on January 17 with 35 per cent, ten percentage points more than Ms Tymoshenko. She had been seen as struggling to make up the gap on her foe, but an apparent late surge in support put her within reach.

The next few days will be critical in determining whether a clearly divided country plunges into a new bout of instability, particularly if the election count confirms the closeness of the race. The verdicts of international observers, expected later today, will also have an important impact.

Victory for Mr Yanukovych would confirm a remarkable political comeback after the humiliation of the Orange revolution. It would also tilt Ukraine back towards Russia’s sphere of influence after the relentlessly pro-European course under President Yushchenko.

For his opponents it would signal the restoration of an authoritarian cronyism that dominated post-Soviet Ukraine. Mr Yanukovych, 59, has never apologised for the ballot-rigging and insisted defiantly in a recent interview with The Times that he had been elected legitimately.

American political consultants worked hard to soften his image as a Soviet-era factory boss, but Mr Yanukovych’s leaden speaking style meant he would never compete on charisma with the sleekly persuasive Ms Tymoshenko. Instead, his campaign focused on his reputation as an effective manager who knew how to get the slumping economy moving again.

Mr Yanukovych’s power base is in Russian-speaking eastern and southern Ukraine, where heavy turnout was reported throughout the day, while Ms Tymoshenko’s greatest support is in the nationalist west.

Temperatures are running high after a battle for power that has been exceptionally vitriolic even by Ukrainian standards of political mud-slinging. Her camp accused supporters of Mr Yanukovych yesterday of killing one of her campaign workers during a confrontation at a voting station in western Ukraine.

The candidates have poured abuse on each in recent weeks, with Ms Tymoshenko repeatedly raising her opponent’s criminal past and Mr Yanukovych dismissing her as better suited to kitchen duties than running the country.

Ms Tymoshenko, the Prime Minister, presented herself as the pro-European candidate and her opponent as “defender of the interests of oligarchs and criminals”. Her campaign literature made repeated reference to the fact that Mr Yanukovych had been jailed twice in his youth after being convicted of assault and robbery, taunted taunted him for his coarse manners and apparent difficulties in speaking Ukrainian.

In return, the Russian-speaking Mr Yanukovych cheerfully made several sexist remarks as he homed in on Ms Tymoshenko’s alleged failings in dealing with the economic crisis.

From Times Online