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Analysis: Ukrainian Candidates Face Off In Debate

Yushchenko (left) and Yanukovych (right) during the televised debate (file photo) Ukrainian presidential candidates Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych on 20 December met in a live televised debate ahead of the upcoming repeat of last month's flawed presidential runoff.

In contrast to their first debate on 15 November, this time the two men were allowed to address each other directly with questions. This new format made the discussion lively and interesting to watch; nearly half of Ukraine's 47 million citizens reportedly watched the 100-minute verbal duel in which Yushchenko and Yanukovych traded accusations and barbs. According to many analysts, Yushchenko came out as the undeniable winner of the debate by assuming the role of a "president-in-waiting" and repeatedly putting Prime Minister Yanukovych on the defensive.

Yushchenko had two strong points that he emphasized throughout the debate. First, Yushchenko accused Yanukovych's election staff and political patrons, including President Leonid Kuchma and presidential-administration chief Viktor Medvedchuk, of stealing 3 million votes during the abortive 21 November runoff. Second, he sarcastically questioned Yanukovych's recently assumed status of an oppositionist to the ruling regime. Moreover, Yushchenko resolutely shunned Yanukovych's repeated attempts to elicit a pledge from him that both sit down and discuss "how we are to live after the elections." Yushchenko made an unambiguous impression during the debate that he is not going to treat Yanukovych as an equal political partner in the future. This, perhaps, was the most bitter pill Yanukovych had to swallow during the debate.

Yushchenko also managed to neutralize to some extent the myths disseminated about him by his opponent's election staff alleging that, as president, he would discriminate, economically and otherwise, against the country's Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions for their support for Yanukovych. "Under my presidency, each region will take an appropriate place in accordance with its potential," Yushchenko said in conclusion of the debate. "Second, nobody will close even a single Russian-language school. Third, nobody will divide Ukrainians into three sorts of people, as it was shown on posters distributed in Kyiv and all of Ukraine by a pro-government force.... [And] nobody will close a single Orthodox church in favor of some denomination or other."
According to a recent poll, Yushchenko should safely win the 26 December ballot with 48 percent of the vote.

The psychological advantage gained by Yushchenko from the "Orange Revolution" made him on 20 December a much more relaxed and self-confident interlocutor than during the first debate, in which, according to many analysts, he was limp and unconvincing and clearly lost to Yanukovych. On the other hand, Yanukovych has apparently not recovered from the invalidation of the 21 November vote by the Supreme Court and the subsequent political compromise that changed the election rules and visibly quelled the executive branch's enthusiasm to employ "administrative resources" on Yanukovych's side in the 26 December repeat runoff.

According to a poll conducted by the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center from 14-19 December, Yushchenko should safely win the 26 December ballot, with 48 percent of the vote against Yanukovych's 39 percent; 5 percent of respondents said they will vote against both candidates, 3 percent said they will not go to the polls, and 5 percent are undecided.

Russian Support

It also has not passed unnoticed that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who unofficially backed Yanukovych in the Ukrainian race and called to congratulate him even before all votes were counted, has seemingly reappraised the election situation in Ukraine. Asked on 21 December in Germany whether a Yushchenko victory would mean a personal defeat to him, Putin said he is ready to work with either candidate. "I know Mr. Yushchenko," international news agencies quoted Putin as saying. "He worked in the same position as the current Ukrainian prime minister, Mr. Yanukovych. He was the head of the Ukrainian government and we cooperated with him. It was a fair cooperation. He, like Mr. Yanukovych, is a member of the team of the current president, Mr. Kuchma. I see no problems here."

According to Interfax-Ukraine, Ukrainian analysts at a roundtable in Kyiv on 21 December agreed that the most probable scenario for Ukraine in the near future is a Yushchenko presidency under which Yanukovych will assume the role of the leader of an opposition camp. This camp -- as opposed to Yushchenko's Our Ukraine and its allies -- might include Yanukovych's Party of Regions, Viktor Medvedchuk's Social Democratic Party-united, and Petro Symonenko's Communist Party.

That Yanukovych may become an important political player in the post-Kuchma era was confirmed by a poll conducted by the Razumkov Center from 6-9 December, in which respondents were asked about their preferences in a hypothetical parliamentary ballot. It turned out that only four parties -- Yushchenko's Our Ukraine (28.8 percent backing), Yanukovych's Party of Regions (14.5 percent), Symonenko's Communist Party (6 percent), and Oleksandr Moroz's Socialist Party (4.5 percent) -- can count on overcoming the 3 percent voting barrier that is required for winning parliamentary mandates (parliamentary elections in 2006 are to be held under a fully proportional party-list system that was approved by the Verkhovna Rada in March).

In other words, the "Orange Revolution" might not only install Yushchenko in power and give Ukraine's shaky democracy a new lease on life, but also contribute to the transformation to a much more transparent and consolidated political scene -- a scenario that can only be welcomed by the two sides.

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