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Ukraine: Kuchma, Symonenko Head Into Runoff

With no candidate in Ukraine's presidential elections winning the more than 50 percent of the vote necessary for a first round victory, the two with the largest share of the vote, incumbent Leonid Kuchma and Communist Petro Symonenko, are now preparing for a run-off on November 14. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports on what each of the contenders is now hoping for.

Kyiv, 1 November 1999 (RFE/RL) - Most analysts and journalists predicted that yesterday's presidential elections in Ukraine, with a field of 13 candidates, would not yield an outright winner. They proved right, as incumbent President Leonid Kuchma scored just under 40 percent of the vote. His nearest rival, Ukrainian Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko, won just over 20 percent.

Now the two are seeking to pick up the votes of the candidates who have been knocked out of the race. Kuchma is holding aloft a broadly pro-western and market reform banner while Symonenko wants to turn the clock back to tick to a Communist beat and has vowed to restore Soviet-style government.

At first glance Kuchma seems to have a strong lead. But the candidates that came third and fourth are also both Leftists -- Socialist Oleksandr Moroz and Progressive Socialist Natalya Vitrenko. If their supporters throw their weight behind Symonenko, then the race would be very close.

Moroz and Vitrenko both gained around 11 percent of the vote. The only other candidate proclaiming democratic and pro-market reform credentials, Yevhen Marchuk, scored around eight percent. Where he throws his support may now become pivotal to the outcome of the second round. Marchuk indicated that he has not ruled out backing the Communist candidate.

The head of the Institute for Statehood and Democracy, Ivan Lozowy, says that Moroz's poor showing in the elections was unexpected. Lozowy says he believes that behind-the-scenes negotiations have already begun by the remaining presidential candidates to win the backing of unsuccessful candidates from the first round.

"I think there were some surprises," Lozowy said. "Particularly that Oleksandr Moroz, who got the most votes from the Leftist camp in 1994 presidential elections, got such a low vote this time. On the other hand, one has to note that the combined Left of Symonenko, Vitrenko, Moroz and Marchuk, or even without Marchuk, is significantly greater than Kuchma's vote. Therefore, we have to say that Ukraine's fate is by no means settled and I'd say that Kuchma's success in the next round is far from certain."

Ukrainian and international observers who monitored yesterday's elections said that for the most part the actual voting was fair and any procedural violations that were spotted would not have significantly affected the final outcome. However, there were strong criticisms over unfair campaign advantages favoring the incumbent, including biased state media coverage and general interference in the campaign by government officials.

Returns indicate a significant regional difference in candidate support. Kuchma and others calling themselves pro-market reformers did particularly well in western and central Ukraine. But in the east of the country, which has a large Russian ethnic population and where economic problems and unemployment are highest, support for Symonenko and the other Leftists was strong.

Symonenko promises to have closer ties with Russia as the first step to restoring a new Soviet Union and wants to establish the Russian language as an official state language. He says that, if elected, he would abolish the presidency and return to Soviet-style rule. He says this would include a centralized command economy with the Communist Party controlling the executive, legislative and judicial branches of state power.

Kuchma himself came to power in 1994 on promises of closer ties with Russia and making Russian a state language but later reneged on them. But he always trod a cautious line between wooing the West and not offending Russia. He has been criticized for not pushing through significant market reforms and allowing government corruption to flourish.

But his chief campaign strategist, Dmytro Tabachnyk, said today that Kuchma is no longer the same man as he was five years ago. Others close to Kuchma say that in his second, and according to the constitution last presidential term, he would be more robust about adopting market reforms and rooting out corruption.

At the Communist Party's modest headquarters in central Kyiv today the atmosphere was upbeat. Symonenko said that he was confident of winning in the second round if the voting procedure was carried out fairly. He said that during his campaigning he had visited all the regions of Ukraine and found that "all of them rejected the policies of Kuchma categorically".

Lozowy says that a Communist victory would set back Ukraine's economic and social progress but could also finish off the party's remaining support.

"Let me firstly say that if the Communists came to power it might not prove to be that negative. Because it would show that they are incapable of tackling the problems that exist in Ukraine. Our problem is, in my opinion, that the Communists, who do not understand how to build democracy or a market economy, have nevertheless taken part in government and have thus discredited reforms and democracy." Lozowy added that "if a full-blown Communist comes to power and demonstrates that he is incapable of delivering even a minimum standard of living for people, that would have a positive effect for democratic forces."

It does not seem there will be a rest period in campaigning. The two remaining candidates have already prepared busy schedules of traveling around Ukraine in an effort to convince voters to back them in the second critical round.