Monitors praise Ukraine vote

Opposition leader appears to have won presidency

Pavel Lahno, 72, rallied for Viktor Yanukovych in front of the Central Election Commission in Kiev yesterday. Pavel Lahno, 72, rallied for Viktor Yanukovych in front of the Central Election Commission in Kiev yesterday. (Efrem Lukatsky/Associated Press)
By Simon Shuster
Associated Press / February 9, 2010

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KIEV - International monitors yesterday hailed Ukraine’s presidential election as transparent and honest, bolstering opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych’s claim of victory and leaving Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in a strategic bind.

Tymoshenko, who was the charismatic catalyst of the 2004 Orange Revolution mass protests, had said she would call supporters into the streets if she deemed Sunday’s election fraudulent.

But although she has signaled she will challenge the outcome in the courts, she issued no protest call yesterday and canceled two news conferences as she apparently weighed her options.

International observers’ criticism of the 2004 presidential election lent significant weight to the Orange protests, which ended with a court-ordered revote in which Yanukovych was defeated by Viktor Yushchenko. This time, the observers’ imprimatur could undermine any call for protest.

Yanukovych had a lead of 3.2 percentage points, with 99.44 percent of the ballots counted. When all the votes have been counted, the Central Elections Commission will release the preliminary tally.

A Yanukovych victory would close a chapter in the country’s political history by ousting the pro-Western leadership of the past five years, which foundered because of internal divisions, fierce opposition from Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, and the collapse of the economy.

As president, Yanukovych would try to balance relations with Moscow against Europe, tilting to Moscow where his Orange Revolution predecessors tilted West. But his narrow mandate, Ukraine’s deeply divided society, and the moribund economy will limit his ability to implement desperately needed political changes.

In the view of many, the role of the presidency itself needs to be restored to the status it held before a compromise thrashed out between Yushchenko and his predecessor, Leonid Kuchma, stripped the presidency of much of its power. The settlement allowed for a way out of the political impasse created by the Orange revolt, but it left the presidency woefully prone to political blackmail at the hands of Parliament and the Cabinet.

The international monitors issued a joint statement saying “the professional, transparent, and honest voting and counting should serve as a solid foundation for a peaceful transition of power.’’

Joao Soares, head of the observation mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, said the vote was an impressive display of a democratic election and a victory for the people of Ukraine. In comments apparently directed at Tymoshenko, he urged Ukraine’s politicians to heed the official vote tally.

“It is now time for the country’s political leaders to listen to the people’s verdict and make sure that the transition of power is peaceful and constructive,’’ Soares said.

High turnout and the efficient performance of election officials dispelled fears of large-scale fraud, the observers said.

The election commission projected the turnout among Ukraine’s 37 million voters at just under 70 percent, 3.2 percentage points higher than the first-round vote Jan. 17, in which 18 candidates competed. Yanukovych won that round by 10 percentage points.

“The Ukrainian people, who have shown their commitment to a democratic electoral process, now deserve a peaceful transition of power,’’ said Assen Agov, head of the delegation of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.

Yanukovych has claimed victory and his team kicked off festivities by calling on the prime minister to acknowledge defeat.

“She should remember her own democratic slogans and recognize the results of the elections,’’ said Anna German, deputy chairwoman of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions.

About 5,000 Yanukovych supporters assembled yesterday morning near a stage in Kiev adorned with the slogan “Ukrainians for a Fair Election,’’ contending to defend the results of the election.

Supporters danced in heavy winter coats in front of the Central Election Commission as a series of daylong concerts got underway despite frigid temperatures and flurries.

Tymoshenko has not called her supporters into the streets. Even the lone tent that had stood outside the Central Election Commission on Friday was gone.