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Reformers Gain Seats in Ukraine Parliament Vote

Europe: Communists will no longer be largest group in legislature, but no party wins majority. Government is accused of interfering in election.

April 02, 2002|MARY MYCIO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine's parliamentary elections produced no clear winner Monday, as reformers edged out Communists but did not secure a clear majority.

Despite allegations of government interference and vote-rigging, observers cautiously predicted that the new legislature would be markedly more reform-minded than any of its predecessors.

With nearly all of the 24 million ballots counted, the reformist Our Ukraine party, led by popular former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, had 23% of the vote; the Communist Party had 20%; and the pro-president For United Ukraine had about 12%. But percentages won by the parties account for just half of the seats in the 450-member parliament. The other 225 are decided in local elections for individuals.

However, it was clear that for the first time since Ukraine became independent a decade ago, the Communists would not form the largest faction in parliament.

The Communists and For United Ukraine are allied with President Leonid D. Kuchma, an unpopular leader who is mired in scandals and internationally isolated. But the other four top vote-getters are parties that oppose Kuchma either openly or surreptitiously.

"This parliament will contain more people who were [Kuchma's] victims than ever before," opined the Internet publication Ukrainian Truth.

Kuchma unexpectedly left the capital, Kiev, on Monday for a weeklong visit to the Crimea. Although he praised Sunday's election as "extremely democratic," he had no comment on its result.

International observers' reactions to the election were mixed. In a report Monday, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe lauded a more democratic new election law, the active role of nongovernmental organizations in monitoring the campaign and balloting, and the wide spectrum of political choices. But it accused the government of interfering in the campaign, and it criticized the media's excessive partisanship in favor of For United Ukraine.

The elections were marred by "a general atmosphere of distrust, both among voters and among candidates," the OSCE reported. However, no organization has said that the final results might be declared invalid.

In Washington, the State Department said the Ukrainian government could have done more to ensure a level playing field for all political parties.

"We're particularly disappointed that officials did not take steps to curb the widespread and open abuse of authority, including the use of government positions and facilities, to the unfair advantage of certain parties," State Department spokesman Philip T. Reeker said.

Taking the local races into account, Yushchenko's party and For United Ukraine, led by Kuchma's ex-administration chief, Volodymyr Lytvyn, were each expected to garner 110 seats in parliament. The Communists were expected to get 65.

Critics charged that authorities abused resources to benefit Lytvyn's party in the local district races. For United Ukraine came in third in voting for the party slates, but it took a commanding lead in the local races.

Yushchenko said Monday that exit polls showed that his party's share of seats should have been greater, and he charged authorities with election fraud.

"We estimate that from 8 to 12% of the vote has been falsified," he told journalists, and he said his party would challenge the results in court.

"Democracy is the loser," he added. "That is the main defeat of these elections."

Lytvyn, who in February called pollsters "prostitutes," dismissed the exit polls and criticisms, saying that unexpectedly strong results for opposition parties were proof that the elections were honest.

In a surprise to many, the Socialist Party--led by the implacably anti-Kuchma former parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz--had about 7% of the vote, slightly more than another coalition opposing the president led by former Deputy Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. A third group, the United Social Democratic Party, garnered only 6% despite relentless promotion on the country's two most-watched television networks.

The remaining 27 parties in the race did not garner the minimum 4% of the vote needed to win a slate of seats. Under Ukraine's election law, votes cast for slates are divided among the winning parties.

Analysts predicted that Our Ukraine and For United Ukraine would act as magnets around which other parties would coalesce. Neither Yushchenko nor Lytvyn rejects the possibility of working together on some issues, such as a less punishing tax code. But other economic reforms that might threaten the shadowy business interests heavily represented in For United Ukraine could put Lytvyn on the same side as the Communists.

Perhaps the greatest uncertainty surrounds Kuchma's future. The Moroz and Tymoshenko blocs are unlikely to total more than 50 seats, but opposition sentiments could gain momentum--particularly if allegations of Kuchma's involvement in the death of journalist Georgi Gongadze in 2000 are substantiated, or if new accusations of illegal arms sales to Iraq prove true.

Without such developments, the lack of a decisive election winner will give Kuchma room to maneuver, especially in preparation for presidential elections planned for 2004, Russian lawmaker Dmitry Rogozin said.

"The existing president's field of support has been sharply reduced," he said. "But for now, it still exists."

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