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Old rivals vie for Ukraine leadership

Sides faced off in the Orange Revolution

KIEV - With politicized concerts, fervent street rallies, a barrage of political advertising, and allegations of rigged voter lists, the two sides that faced off in Ukraine's Orange Revolution are at it again.

Today's parliamentary elections are largely a face-off between Yulia Tymoshenko, the most fiery leader of the 2004 protests, and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, the object of the protesters' wrath. Offering contrasting styles and foreign policy goals, they are the main rivals to head the next government of this former Soviet state.

"I want us to go toward Europe rather than Russia," said Antonina Ledeneva, a businesswoman volunteering in Tymoshenko's campaign. "We don't want to have the same 'democracy' as [President Vladimir V.] Putin has in Russia now."

The battle lines are essentially the same as in 2004. The Orange team, named after Viktor Yushchenko's campaign color in his presidential race, is represented by the Tymoshenko bloc and the Our Ukraine/People's Self-Defense bloc. The latter group is closely linked to President Yushchenko. Against them stand Yanukovich's Party of Regions and the Communists.

The latest polls indicated that the two sides were in a virtual dead heat.

In 2004, Tymoshenko was the key ally of Yushchenko, the pro-Western candidate for president who nearly died of dioxin poisoning in a plot that some have suggested had ties to Moscow. He went on to win the presidency when the Orange Revolution forced the rerun of rigged elections.

Yanukovich, 57, lost that bitter race. Perceived then as the Moscow-backed candidate, he has remade his image, looking and acting more like a Western European politician and less like a stuffy Soviet-era bureaucrat. He even mounted a comeback, becoming prime minister after his party did well in a parliamentary election last year.

Yanukovich's power base is the country's largely Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions. He still insists that closer ties with the West should not come at the expense of warm relations with Moscow, but he has switched to speaking Ukrainian in his official appearances rather than Russian, his first language.

His campaign stresses that he is the more competent manager.

Tymoshenko, 46, rose to fame as Ukraine's "gas princess," when she made millions trading in natural gas supplies. Since entering politics, she has positioned herself as a fighter against corruption and an advocate of close ties with the West. She stresses her Ukrainian character by wearing her hair braided and wound on her head in a traditional peasant style.

If Tymoshenko comes out on top in the voting, she could try to move this nation of 47 million much more rapidly toward European integration and close ties with the United States.

If Yanukovich prevails, Ukraine would remain more nearly balanced between East and West, although many observers predict that in the long run, the country inevitably will grow closer to the European Union.

Both sides have accused the other of planning to cheat in the election, largely through rigged voter lists said to include hundreds of thousands of "dead souls," and by falsification of the vote count in their respective regional strongholds.

Yanukovich's Party of Regions, despite its record of trying to rig the presidential vote in 2004, has been particularly vocal in accusing the Orange camp of planning to cheat this time. That, in turn, has prompted fears in Tymoshenko's circle that the prime minister might refuse to accept a defeat.

Yanukovich has indicated that if he loses in what his side believes was an unfair contest, he will seek to imitate the 2004 upheaval by bringing his supporters into the streets to challenge the results. Party of Regions activists took physical control of Kiev's central Independence Square last week and appear intent on holding on there until the ballot counting is complete.

"We see that the Orange team . . . will not be able to win the elections by fair means. They see that they are losing, and are preparing to rig the elections. We have enough strength not to allow this," Yanukovich said Tuesday, when asked why his backers were setting up tents in the square.

Such threats have met with a contemptuous response from the rival camp, which believes Yanukovich does not command the same depth of loyalty from his voters as Yushchenko and Tymoshenko had when they challenged the rigged 2004 balloting.

The other key post-election factor will be coalition building. Tymoshenko would be considered the strong favorite to become prime minister if the two Orange blocs win a majority of seats, but even in that case it would not be a sure thing.

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