By Lily Hyde/Askold Krushelnycky
Ukrainians went to the polls on Sunday for presidential elections that many believe will decide whether Ukraine continues to steer a broadly pro-western and market reform course or heads back toward its Communist past. RFE/RL correspondents Lily Hyde and Askold Krushelnycky send this report from Ukraine where they visited several polling stations.
Kyiv, 1 November 1999 (RFE/RL) --Mild temperatures and bright blue skies over much of Ukraine seemed to be coaxing people to come out to vote in Ukraine's third presidential elections since independence in 1991.
In polling stations visited by RFE/RL, officials said turnout had been much higher than for last year's parliamentary elections. In some districts, more than half of registered voters were reported turning out within the first few hours of polling.
During campaigning for Ukraine's top job, contested by 13 candidates, there were frequent accusations that the voting would be manipulated. But some of the 500 international observers patrolling the polling stations told RFE/RL that voting procedures appeared fair and to be going smoothly, although some infractions had been noted.
However, two of the opposition candidates lodged early protests about alleged violations.
Observers say that the most vulnerable stage of the process was when the certified numbers of votes cast in some 33,000 individual polling stations are passed on for tallying in regional centers. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which with 270 observers is the largest international monitoring group for the elections, said its personnel would keep an especially close eye on those centers.
In the village of Nova Petrivka, some 35 kms west of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, the head of the polling station's commission, Lyubov Paliy, told RFE/RL that there were no hitches.
"Everything is going peacefully and in accordance with the election laws. There have been no complaints from the observers who have been here, the commission is working, the voters have not made any complaints."
Many of the people exiting the polling stations said they had voted for the incumbent president, Leonid Kuchma. He is asking for a second five year term and is promising to introduce market reforms and to further develop contacts with the West. His three leading rivals are Leftists who, to varying degrees, want to roll back market reforms and establish closer relations with Russia.
At Nova Petrivka a young couple who had married less than an hour before casting their votes for Kuchma, said they hoped he would create jobs for young people. A pensioner, Mykola Havreliuk, explained why he also voted for Kuchma and snubbed the Leftists.
"The Communists showed themselves and compromised themselves in a very negative way. They deceived our people in a very big way and strongly repressed our people, all of its elite, the progressive people. They destroyed them. That is not just something I'm dreaming up but statistics and documents back this up. And these days archives have been opened up so that we can see what the Communists did. How can we vote for such people when they repressed our forefathers?"
Yet others said they had voted for one of Kuchma's opponents. Many blamed the incumbent for rampant corruption and the poor state of the nation's economy.
In villages like Lyutezh and Huta, around 50 kms outside Kyiv, there was an almost festive atmosphere with shashlik (grilled meat) stalls and drinks on sale outside polling stations and voters discussing politics after they had cast their ballots. Even the smallest places appeared to have a full complement of Ukrainian observers acting on behalf of the 13 candidates and various civic organizations. In Stara Petrivka, these included a cossack "attaman" leader.
"I am called Volodymyr Vasylovych Danylenko, I live in Stara Petrivka and am the Attaman of the Vyshorod Company of Cossacks. I am working in this district and other cossacks are working elsewhere as observers or in the electoral commissions."
In the capital, voting also seemed to be going smoothly with high turnouts reported at many stations. Kyiv's District Number 221 became notorious for violations of electoral laws after last year's parliamentary elections. But there, too, a relaxed atmosphere existed. An observer from the independent Committee of Voters of Ukraine, who would only give her first name - Natalya - told RFE/RL that the voting in District Number 221 had gone smoothly.
Elections officials say final, official results are expected mid-day Monday. A candidate must gain more than 50 percent of the vote to win the presidency. Most analysts and the head of Ukraine's electoral commission say they believe this is unlikely. If their prognostications are correct, there will be a run off election in mid November between the two contenders winning the largest share of the vote.