KYIV -- Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has called for a second Orange Revolution if her opponent rigs a weekend presidential runoff that is almost certain to have a lasting impact on the country.
The fiery Orange Revolution heroine made her call after outgoing President Viktor Yushchenko today enacted a new law scrapping the requirement for a quorum of observers from both sides to approve counts at each polling station in the February 7 vote.
The legislation was initiated and pushed through parliament on February 3 by the party of pro-Moscow candidate Viktor Yanukovych, Tymoshenko's rival for president.
An angry Tymoshenko lashed out at the measure at a news conference today, calling it a "death warrant" for Ukraine's democracy. She said parliament had bypassed committee hearings and used other "unprecedented" violations of legislative procedure:
"This law, which was essentially passed using extraordinary measures two days before the vote, changes all the rules governing elections," Tymoshenko said. "It opens a direct path toward the complete falsification of the election."
Tymoshenko said the law would enable officials in regions controlled by Yanukovych's Party of Regions to dismiss any observers on election day and replace them with their own appointees.'Sign Of Weakness'
Ukraine is a battleground for influence between Russia and the West. Moscow openly backed Yanukovych in 2004, when the heavyset former Communist official lost a presidential election over massive vote rigging that brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets in the Orange Revolution.
Tymoshenko, who says she wants to bring Ukraine into the European Union, today said Ukraine's new election law rolls back the democratic gains of the revolution by removing the main measure guaranteeing fair elections. She accused Yanukovych of preparing to carry out widespread electoral fraud as his only way of winning the election.
Yanukovych dismissed the accusations, saying under the previous law, Tymoshenko supporters could have manipulated the vote themselves by deliberately blocking quorum at vote-counting centers. "This is a sign of weakness and a sign she has understood she's losing," news agencies quoted him as saying during a campaign stop in his stronghold of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.
Adding to the drama is the fact that it is Yushchenko, Tymoshenko's onetime ally in the Orange Revolution, who has sparked the confrontation by signing off on the election changes today, three days before the runoff. Iryna Vannykova, a presidential spokeswoman, defended the president's move.
"The presidential election faced the threat of disruption, therefore Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko signed the amendment to the law on presidential elections adopted by parliament," Vannykova said.
Tymoshenko appealed to the international community and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- the OSCE, whose monitors will observe the election -- to condemn the new law.
International observers praised the first round of the presidential election last month as a major success for democracy. Klas Bergman, director of communications for the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly, said the mission had stressed the importance of not changing the country's electoral rules between the two rounds.
"In that sense," said Bergman, "yesterday's parliamentary decision was unfortunate because it does put a cloud over the election which we think really was quite unnecessary."Heating Up
Analysts say the mounting war of words could escalate into a standoff between state agencies and officials loyal to one or another of the candidates. Tymoshenko has already said the court that would arbitrate any election dispute is headed by a Yanukovych appointee who illegally kept his job after his term ran out.
Tymoshenko trailed Yanukovych by 10 percent in the election's first round. But she hopes to unite a fractured Orange electorate that voted for several candidates last month.
The candidates have fought a bitter campaign in which each have hurled insults at the other in a tight race that's too close to call.
Whoever wins the election will have to confront a devastating economic crisis and widely predicted ongoing political instability, including possible early parliamentary elections and constitutional reform to strengthen a weak presidency.
Today Tymoshenko called on the Ukrainian people to observe the election themselves and take to the streets if the ballot is seen as illegitimate.
"I appeal to you to unite, to consolidate our forces, to stop those murky times of 2004 from returning to Ukraine, and to stop criminal authorities from seizing power in the election," she said.
Both sides appear to be preparing for a confrontation over the election results.
An Interior Ministry official seen as loyal to Tymoshenko has said hotel rooms near Kyiv are filled with Yanukovych supporters bused in and paid to be ready to protest the outcome. The Yanukovych campaign has already erected a large stage on one of Kyiv's central squares.
Most believe Ukrainians are too disillusioned with both candidates to repeat the massive protests of the Orange Revolution. But in Kyiv today, there are fears the election could result in a similar political standoff that would discredit the institution of democracy in Ukraine.