Friday, January 22, 2010

Ukraine Poll Leaders Set Sights on Swing Voters

JANUARY 19, 2010
Ukraine Poll Leaders Set Sights on Swing Voters

KIEV — Opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, bitter foes since Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution, began a three-week scramble for new support Monday after first-round voting in the country's presidential election thrust them into a runoff.

Near-complete returns from the Central Election Commission gave 35.3% of Sunday's vote to Mr. Yanukovych, the dour but resilient politician whose tainted victory in the 2004 race was overturned after massive street protests against alleged fraud.

His margin over Ms. Tymo shenko, who polled 25%, wasn't wide enough to make him the runoff's clear favorite, political analysts said. Ms. Tymoshenko, a former natural-gas tycoon known for her sharp tongue and crown of braided hair, is considered the more charismatic and aggressive campaigner.

But she shares the burden of the political and economic turmoil that has stymied the country under the pro-Western Orange Revolution and its principal leader, President Viktor Yushchenko, who finished fifth among 18 contenders with 5.5% of Sunday's vote.

With 40% of the first-round vote up for grabs, the question is whether Ms. Tymoshenko can persuade swing voters who are ideologically closer to her to overlook her part in the leadership's failures and support her in the Feb. 7 runoff.

Staking out her battle line, she assailed her opponent, a former prime minister, as a tool of corrupt oligarchs. She called on "democratic forces" to help her keep Ukraine on a path toward integration with Europe.

"To vote for Yanukovych is to choose the Stone Age," she said in televised remarks late Sunday.

Mr. Yanukovych declared Monday that Ukrainians had turned against their leaders. His rival, he said, "has not learned to accept her mistakes and correct them. People sense that, and don't trust her."

Ms. Tymoshenko got most of her support in the nationally minded, pro-European west and center of Ukraine. Mr. Yanukovych polled heavily in the eastern and southern regions culturally close to Russia.

The geopolitical tone of the 2004 race, in which Russia backed Mr. Yanukovych and was humiliated by the outcome, is largely absent this time. Both major candidates have vowed to repair ties with Russia while pursuing European Union membership. The economy and corruption mattered more to voters.

Nor did allegations of fraud and voter intimidation weigh on Sunday's results as they did in 2004. Western electionobservers reported that the voting generally met international standards, despite some confusion over who was eligible to vote from home.

Supporters of banking millionaire Serhiy Tihipko and former parliament speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk could hold the key to the runoff outcome. They finished third and fourth, respectively, polling about 20% between them on similar reform messages branding Ukraine's traditional politicians as ineffective and corrupt. Messrs. Tihipko and Yatsenyuk said they will support neither candidate in the runoff.

"Tymoshenko needs to convince voters for Tihipko and Yatsenyuk to come out, and she needs to persuade them ...that the alternative represented by Yanukovych is much worse," said David J. Kramer, a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, who observed the election. "That's going to be hard...A lot of Ukrainians voted for those candidates because they are not Tymo shenko."

Mr. Yanukovych hopes to pick up votes from Mr. Tihipko, who scored well in the front-runner's strongholds. But some who voted for Mr. Tihipko said they couldn't abide Mr. Yanukovych, a former factory manager who served jail time for assault and robbery in his youth and gained attention for declaring himself a "proffesor"—misspelling the word in Ukrainian—in his 2004 presidential declaration.

"I will never vote for an illiterate leader. I would be embarrassed to have him as president," said Olha Kovalchuk of Kiev, who voted for Mr. Tihipko in the first round and now supports Ms. Tymoshenko.

Both candidates sprang into action Monday after an explosion caused by oxygen tanks killed at least seven people at a hospital in the eastern town of Luhansk. Ms. Tymoshenko rushed there in her capacity as prime minister. Mr. Yanukovych promised his Party of Regions party would give $3,000 to the families of each victim.

Whoever wins the runoff will inherit an economy that shrank 15% last year, according to the World Bank. The new president will have to persuade the International Monetary Fund to resume a $16.4 billion bailout program, suspended after Mr. Yushchenko signed wage and pension increases into law in October.

Getting parliament to pass the required austerity measures will be difficult. Mr. Yanukovych has said that if he wins he might call parliamentary elections this year to secure a legislative majority.

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