Saturday, February 6, 2010

Troubles Loom Over Ukraine Election

While tomorrow is election day in Ukraine, it’s looking like the close of the polls may not be the end of the battle to become the country’s next president.

Current Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is crying foul and threatening massive street protests in Kiev following a last-minute change to Ukraine’s election laws. Basically, the rule had been that representatives from both parties had to be present to approve the vote count at each of the country’s polling stations. But a bill pushed through parliament by her challenger, Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, and signed by outgoing President Viktor Yushchenko scrapped this requirement. Tymoshenko said this opens the election up massive vote rigging, but members of the Party of Regions counter by saying the change was necessary based on rumors that Tymoshenko’s party planned to boycott the vote count process at polls across southern and eastern Ukraine (Yanukovych’s power base), invalidating the vote from these stations in the process.

This isn’t the only charge of fraud being thrown around before the vote – the Party of Regions also accused Tymoshenko of trying to print over a million phony ballots, while she has accused him of busing his own party thugs into Kiev from eastern Ukraine to try to intimidate her voters. Tymoshenko also complained of voter fraud in the first round of the election, even though independent monitors could not find evidence of large-scale problems and Tymoshenko herself did better in the voting than pre-election polls had indicated.

Right now the final polls have the election too close to call. That is coming as a surprise to many observers who thought Tymoshenko would pull ahead of Yanukovych in the second round. The reason is that Yanukovych was the candidate of choice for Ukraine’s sizable ethnic Russian minority (Yanukovych is from the Russian-leaning eastern part of the country), while Tymoshenko was battling it out with 16 other candidates for the remainder of Ukraine’s electorate in the first round of the voting. The conventional wisdom was that many more of these voters – particularly reform-minded and Western-leaning ones – would migrate to her, but Tymoshenko has had a hard time winning over Ukrainians unhappy with the unfulfilled promises of the Orange Revolution that she helped to spearhead.

With a clear winner unlikely in tomorrow’s vote, the chances of the losing side claiming fraud are high. Whether this will translate into court challenges, street protests or both remains to be seen.
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