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Ukraine: Communists Come Out Ahead In Parliamentary Vote

Prague, 1 April 1998 (RFE/RL ) --Ukraine's confident communist party chairman spoke of ousting President Leonid Kuchma's cabinet, but the Ukrainian leader asserted there would be no turning back to Soviet-style government after nearly complete results have indicated the communist-led left came out ahead in parliamentary elections over the weekend.

Final official figures are expected later today, but with almost all districts reporting it is clear the communists and two other leftist parties came out the victors in Sunday's poll.

Half of the 450 seats in the Ukraine's Verkhovnaya Rada will be apportioned among parties winning more than 4 percent of the nationwide vote. The remaining seats will go to winners of individual races in 225 districts.

In the nationwide vote by party, the Central Election Commission said the Communist Party had won 84 seats, the Progressive Socialist/Peasants' Party bloc 29 and the Progressive Socialist Party 14. With the 37 seats gained from the single mandate vote, the communists will be the largest party in the parliament. All told, the Ukrainian left could control 173 seats.

The pro-reform camp had little to celebrate. The Rukh nationalist party--which spearheaded the country's independence drive in the 1980s and 1990s-- finished a disapointing second to the communists with just 32 seats, based on results of the party vote. The Greens,--whose business backing cast some doubts on the party's integrity as environmentalists-- won 19 seats, the centrist People's Democratic Party of Prime Minister Valery Pustovoytenko got 17 seats, the centrist Hromada party of former prime minister Pavlo Lazarenko secured 16 seats and the centrist United Social Democratic party of former president Leonid Kravchuk won 14 seats.

The result prompted obvious questions over the course of Ukraine's sputtering economic reform program.

The pro-government Ukrayina Moloda newspaper asked yesterday whether the result would herald a "Red Dawn." Buoyed by the tally, communist party chairman Petro Symonenko demanded Monday that Kuchma sack his government and renege on reform promises to the International Monetary Fund.

Symonenko's statements generally echo public sentiment in Ukraine, where seven years of independence have still not delivered a promised better life. Ukraine, in most cases, is worse off. Workers are owed more than 2,500 million dollars in back wages, unemployment hovers around 20 percent, pensions and other social welfare payments are delayed or not paid. To many Ukrainians reform has become a repugnant word.

But Kuchma appeared undaunted yesterday, saying "there will be no turning back." Kuchma dismissed the parliamentary result, saying the new parliament will be "no worse than the old one." His top economic advisor Anatoly Halchynsky said yesterday that IMF-approved reforms would continue.

Kuchma must now assess where his allies are in the parliament. The only group that Kuchma can count on for full support is Pustovoitenko' People's Democratic Party, which garnered 5.1 percent of the party vote. Kuchma can also turn to the moderate United Social Democrats, if they manage to clear the 4 percent hurdle. According to the incomplete results, the Social Democrats were barely above that threshold with 4.01 percent of the vote.

Kuchma could gain support from the 114 non-aligned "independents -- many of whom are businessmen -- who won seats in single mandate races. But their political loyalties remain unclear, and they could swing with parliamentary mood.

The fragmentation of the right and the center -- cited as a reason for their dismal showing -- will also mean Kuchma faces a challenge in corralling those parties into any type of cohesive front.

Some good news for Kuchma comes from the fact that the communists and the left did not gain a majority in parliament. That means his foes will be hard pressed to muster the two-thirds majority needed to override vetoes or change the constitution. Symonenko has said in the past that he wants to do away with the presidency altogether, and rule by parliamentary coalition, with the communists at the helm.

With presidential elections slated for next year, most analysts are expecting a continuation of the gridlock between the parliament and Kuchma.

"Drift is what Ukraine is all about," an unnamed Western diplomat based in Kyiv told Reuters yesterday. He suggested Kuchma -- whose credits include reining in inflation and stabilizing the hryvna -- could exploit the political landscape in the parliament to his advantage.

"Kuchma could use this weakness as a strenghth, he will use it like (President Boris) Yeltsin to present himself in a 'me against the forces of Communist darkness' scenario," he said.

Diplomats also say Kuchma is not keen to push unpopular reform measures with presidential elections looming next year.

But such inaction is unlikely to win backing from Ukraine's international financial backers. On the eve of the election the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund suspended huge loan programs, accusing Mr. Kuchma's government of bad faith. The U.S. has warned it will cut in half further aid to Ukraine if no progress is made with economic reforms.

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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.