Kyiv, 19 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The eyes of the international community will be on Ukraine on 21 November, as voters there head to the polls in a second-round vote to choose a new president.
The United States yesterday called for the election to be held according to democratic standards. In a statement, the White House said the people of Ukraine "have the right and deserve the opportunity to make their choice freely, without intimidation or fear, from outside or within." European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana also called outgoing President Leonid Kuchma yesterday and asked for a clean contest.
Much of the campaign has been filled with allegations of cheating and bribery. The government accuses Our Ukraine of stuffing ballot boxes in western Ukraine and of bribing election officials in at least one district. The opposition alleges that ballot boxes were stuffed with large numbers of ballot papers faked in favor of Yanukovych.
"But is that democracy under threat? I want to put that question to you and to myself. Unfortunately, speaking candidly, I must emphasize that it is, unless some political forces do not control their emotions." -- President Kuchma
A senior Our Ukraine campaign official, Oleh Rybachuk, claims there was a price list of bribes being offered by the government.
"There are payments being made to individuals. There's a price list. [For example,] before 21 November, the head of an election committee gets $10,000, depending on the difficulty of the task. He gets the same amount of money after the desired result is achieved," Rybachuk said.
International observers and monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Council of Europe, the United States, and Canada concluded that the election campaign and the first-round vote fell short of accepted standards.
Many people, including police officers and employees of large state enterprises, such as the energy company Naftogaz, have come forward in recent days. They allege they are being forced to apply for absentee voter rights in other areas and are being ordered to submit these for use by Yanukovych supporters.
Parliament voted yesterday to scrap the absentee voter scheme. But Kuchma may not approve the new law in time for use this weekend.
Five senior police officers from the Kharkiv region in eastern Ukraine -- varying in rank from colonel to lieutenant colonel -- told RFE/RL, under promise of anonymity, they had been involved in large-scale falsification. They said their men had been ordered to guard a storehouse of around 500,000 ballot papers pre-marked for Yanukovych, which they claim were distributed to local polling stations during the first round.
At a press conference yesterday, Kuchma said he does not believe allegations of cheating by the government.
"The president of Ukraine will be the person chosen by the people -- I have no doubt about this -- in honest, transparent, democratic elections. In a lawful manner, and no other way. And I want to stress something else. Ukraine needs absolutely honest elections like we need oxygen and an absolutely legitimate president," Kuchma said.
He said he has always done everything to ensure free and fair elections. "I repeat that if there are any abuses of the electoral process, I am ready to sit down with you and investigate them," Kuchma said.
Kuchma said the first round had shown that democracy is in place in Ukraine, but he said he fears that democracy is in danger.
"But is that democracy under threat? I want to put that question to you and to myself. Unfortunately, speaking candidly, I must emphasize that it is, unless some political forces do not control their emotions," Kuchma said.
In response to a question about who those forces were, Kuchma said he was referring to the opposition.
He also condemned pledges by the opposition to stage large-scale demonstrations if they believe they have been cheated of victory after yesterday's vote.
Yushchenko appealed to his supporters to keep a close watch on local polling stations to minimize chances for fraud:
"My friends, you should be in no doubt today that your views will only be taken into account if you defend them yourself. And you are being asked to do this on 21 November. Don't be in a hurry to leave the polling station. Be at the polling station the entire day, particularly after 8 p.m. when the voting stops and the counting starts. We ask you that the first ones who should know the result of the election in your polling station should be yourselves," Yushchenko said.
Along with hundreds of foreign monitors, the election teams of both candidates plan to field their own unofficial parallel counting crews after the vote. Yanukovych's team says it has set up a center for tallying the results from voting stations as they become available. Yushchenko's team plans to field 35,000 volunteers to report vote counts early on 22 November to his team in the center of Kyiv.
Today is the last legal day for campaigning.
After a delay of 10 days, Ukraine's Central Election Commission finally announced that Yushchenko had narrowly won the first round, with a half-percentage-point lead over Yanukovych. But neither candidate exceeded the 50-percent threshold needed for outright victory. The runoff will be decided by a simple plurality of votes.
Yushchenko is pro-Western and has a track record of democratic reforms and fighting corruption when he was prime minister from 2000 to 2001. He says cooperation with Russia is important but advocates European Union and NATO membership.
Yanukovych is pro-Russian and sees Ukraine's future in a Moscow-led Single Economic Zone comprised of Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. He has courted Ukraine's millions of ethnic Russians, promising dual nationality and that Russian would become a second state language.
Both candidates promise to improve Ukraine's economy and raise salaries for public-sector employees.For analysis on the presidential election, see Ukraine's Compromised Choice