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Ukraine: Communists Lead Poll, But Reforms Likely to Suffer

Prague, 30 March 1998 (RFE/RL) - Economic reforms suffered a potentially grave setback in Ukraine as partial preliminary results and exit polls from yesterday's parliamentary elections indicated the communists and other left-wing parties had strengthened their position in the country's legislature.

Central Election Committee figures put the communists out in front, as expected, followed by the center-right, People's Movement of Ukraine, or Rukh, the national-democratic force that spearheaded Ukraine's drive for independence in the late 1980s and 1990s.

The independent Kyiv-based think-tank, Democratic Initiative group, said earlier today that their latest exit poll indicated the communists had secured 26 percent of the vote, while three other main left-wing parties had 12 percent of the vote. The communists already dominate the parliament with 116 deputies, or 28 percent of the seats.

The head of Democratic Initiative group, Ilko Kucheriv, said their poll showed the Rukh with 11 percent of the vote, the Green Party with six percent, and the pro-government People's Democratic Party of Ukraine (United) with five percent.

Preliminary results also indicate voter preference was split roughly between the east and west of the country. Rukh gained most of its support in traditionally nationalistic western regions while the communists were stronger in the eastern regions of the country, the capital Kyiv, and the Crimean autonomous peninsula.

Electoral officials announced delays in tallying the ballots from 32,513 polling stations spread across a territory the size of France. Turnout among Ukraine's 37 million registered voters totaled 69.64 percent, which compared favorably with turnout in 1994.

Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine's former president and one of the leaders of the centrist Social Democratic Party of Ukraine (United), said the left's strong showing indicated many are disillusioned with Kuchma's reforms. "People are voting against the economic situation in the country," he said.

Once predicted to become an economic powerhouse by the International Monetary Fund, Ukraine's one economic success in 1997 was to bring inflation under control. The economy continues to plunge, with a further 3 percent drop predicted for 1997.

Moreover, the government owes workers the equivalent of some 2,500 million dollars in back wages, and hundreds of millions more in pensions. At least 20 percent of Ukraine's workforce is unemployed.

As a result, the left exploited Ukrainians' growing disillusionment with reform, which one western diplomat explained, has been equated with suffering.

Valery Khmilko, an analyst at the Kyiv Center for Political Studies stated the obvious today, saying the left's strong showing in the parliamentary poll will make it more difficult to conduct economic reforms in Ukraine.

Sherman Garnett, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington D.C., predicted the parliamentary vote would neither signal the end to the country's economic stagnation or questioning of the country's leadership.

Voters were also angered by the level of mudslinging and other shenanigans during the pre-election campaign. Over the past three months, several candidates were arrested, two newspapers shutdown, one newspaper had been firebombed and opposition parties had been banned from state-run television.

Fragmentation of the center and the right did not help their cause. Of the 30 parties contesting yesterday's poll, 26 were centrist or right with similar platforms focused on fighting crime, paying overdue salaries, reducing taxes and easing the suffering caused by free-market reforms.

A new law apportioning half of the 450 seats in the parliament was meant to bolster Ukraine's system of party politics. But personalities, and not policies, once again played a key role in campaigning.

Garnett noted five of the six leading political parties in the country define themselves primarily by their opposition to Kuchma. Three of them -- the Socialists, the Social Democrats and Hromada-- are the organizational base for Mr. Kuchma's main rivals in 1999, Oleksander Moroz, Yevhen Marchuk and Pavel Lazarenko.

Kuchma has said he is ready to work with the incoming parliament. But with a presidential poll a year away, most analysts are predicting more gridlock and bickering between Kuchma and the legislature.
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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.