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Ukraine: Initial Election Results Show Close Three-Way Race

Results are coming in from yesterday's parliamentary elections in Ukraine, which are being seen as a referendum on the presidency of Leonid Kuchma. Initial results show a close race with three political blocs vying for victory -- the Communists, the reformist Our Ukraine bloc, and parties allied to Kuchma. Local and foreign observers have reported some voting irregularities, and the head of one observer mission says "incompetence" prevented hundreds from casting their ballots. But electoral officials have declared the vote to have been free and fair.

Prague, 1 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Results still being tabulated from yesterday's parliamentary elections in Ukraine suggest no single bloc will have an outright majority in the 450-seat chamber. But the tally so far suggests a strong showing for allies of President Leonid Kuchma -- despite poll results that put them in third place.

Three main blocs are vying for victory -- the pro-Western, reformist Our Ukraine bloc led by a former central bank governor and prime minister, Viktor Yushchenko; the Communists; and parties allied to Kuchma, running under the banner For a United Ukraine.

With three-fourths of the vote counted, Our Ukraine is ahead with 22.6 percent. The Communists have 20.2 percent and For a United Ukraine has 12.9. But Ukraine's hybrid system looks set to give a boost to For a United Ukraine, which is picking up seats in single-member constituencies.

Three other parties appear to have passed the 4 percent threshold to enter parliament. Two are opposed to Kuchma -- the Yuliya Tymoshenko bloc, which has 6.8 percent, and Oleksandr Moroz's Socialist Party, which has 7.2 percent. The third party is one close to the president -- Viktor Medvedchuk's centrist Social Democratic Party Ukraine-united, which has 6.1 percent.

The close race reflects divisions over the direction voters want Ukraine to take: the pro-Western reform line touted by Yushchenko, or the stability -- or stagnation, according to critics -- offered by the pro-Russia Kuchma and his allies. The election has been seen as a referendum on Kuchma's presidency, which has been shadowed by corruption allegations and scandals, including accusations he ordered the killing of an opposition journalist.

After he cast his ballot yesterday, Kuchma said the poll is a defining moment for the country: "I think Ukraine's future hangs on this election, more than on previous elections."

Yushchenko sensed victory early on, after exit polls gave his bloc a strong lead, in line with opinion polls in the runup to the campaign. He said last night: "In Ukraine, a new democratic force has appeared that has the support of the electorate. It's in the first place, and Communists and others are behind. From the point of view of political consolidation, it's the beginning of truly balanced and truly normal democratic development in Ukraine."

Our Ukraine's lead did not dent the confidence of Volodymyr Lytvyn, who leads For a United Ukraine. He said today his bloc would be the strongest force, with some 125-130 deputies in the 450-seat parliament.

"I think the configuration of the parliament will be defined by the bloc For a United Ukraine," Lytvyn said.

How to explain Lytvyn's confidence? Well, half of the seats in the Verkhovna Rada, as the Ukrainian parliament is called, are allocated on the basis of proportional representation. The other half are filled on a first-past-the-post system, where For a United Ukraine was expected to do well.

Preliminary results from these "majority constituencies" confirm this, giving For a United Ukraine 70 seats and Yushchenko's Our Ukraine just 39.

Yesterday's poll came after a campaign that observers say was stacked in favor of the parties allied to Kuchma. And there have been reports of irregularities during polling. False ballots were reported in Kramatorsk, while some 500 ballots were reported to have disappeared from a polling station in Sevastopol.

Russian election monitors said there had been some minor violations but that the elections were fair and democratic.

Today, however, Yushchenko said the violations were widespread.

"About 10,000 violations were registered during the elections. That is why I think we will need some time to wait before we can take certain measures regarding these violations," Yushchenko said.

Hanne Severinsen, who heads the Council of Europe's observer mission in Ukraine, said incompetence led to long lines at polling stations, with hundreds of people being prevented from voting.

But observer Hrair Balian says it is too early to say if such incompetence will sway the final outcome. Balian is head of elections for the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, part of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

"I don't think it's going to make a big difference. Yes, I'm sure voters were frustrated and turned away and didn't wait in line to cast their ballots. And obviously even one vote makes a difference in any election, ultimately. But whether or not it would make a difference in terms of how many deputies these parties would elect, I would be hesitant to make that judgment."

He says that in most of the 1,500 polling stations observed by international monitors, proceedings were reported as "positive."

"In 6 percent of the cases observed, observers said there was incompetence, mismanaging, etcetera. Yes, there was incompetence, but I wouldn't generalize it to the entire electoral process. I think the Central Election Commission managed the process very efficiently and very professionally, much more so than in previous elections."

But he says there were some major flaws in the campaign, despite signs of progress compared with previous years: "The media was extremely biased -- in particular, the state media -- so the voters could not make an informed judgment on the candidates in this election by just referring to the media. There was an atmosphere of a lack of confidence in the whole electoral process because of previous elections in this country, and also developments in the last years where we've had journalists murdered, where just a day before the elections we had one important candidate murdered [Nikolai Shkryblyak of the Social Democratic Party for Ukraine], so it's a mixed picture at this point."

The close race means it is still unclear who will dominate the parliament. The Communists will be a strong force but are unlikely to side with reformists. And Our Ukraine could find it difficult to stay united once in parliament, as it is made up of many groups spanning the political spectrum.