Ukraine Holds Breath In Election Cliffhanger

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine held its breath Tuesday as the last ballots were counted in a cliffhanger parliamentary election, with the focus turning to small parties that could hold the key to power in forming a ruling coalition.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich greets his supporters from a stage at Independence square in Kiev. Ukraine's elections hung on a knife-edge Tuesday as preliminary results threatened a dead heat and pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko ordered a probe into possible ballot fraud.

Final results were expected Tuesday, but even this was not certain as the country of 47 million people slid toward a new round of political bickering and instability -- exactly what Sunday's snap election was meant to end.

In a sign of rising nerves, Moscow-backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's Regions Party bolstered its presence on Kiev's central square, the scene of countless demonstrations over the last three years in this ex-Soviet republic.

Few party activists were visible, but their blue tents were dotted across the historic plaza known as the Maidan, apparently in a bid to control the territory.

With 94 percent of ballots counted President Viktor Yushchenko and his pro-Western Orange Revolution partner Yulia Tymoshenko saw their combined parties gather 45 percent of the vote.

That put them a hair ahead of their arch rival, Yanukovych.

His Regions Party was set to be the biggest in parliament with 34.2 percent of the vote, but even if Yanukovych managed to link up with two smaller parties his coalition would only control 43.5 percent of the vote -- still 1.5 percentage points behind the Orange coalition.

The tightness of the results meant that every vote counted, with the outcome potentially depending on whether one more small party, the Socialists, managed to enter parliament.

At the latest count they had only 2.94 percent of the vote, just under the legal three percent bar for being awarded seats. If the Socialists do get in, then they could be kingmakers for either side.

Yushchenko on Monday ordered police to investigate possible ballot fraud in the east of the country, a Yanukovych stronghold, saying that "those who commit fraud will be punished."

But Yanukovych was defiant in the face of what had been a day of early results indicating narrow victory for the Orange alliance, which hopes to oust Yanukovych and replace him with the fiery reformer Tymoshenko.

"We won and I am sure that we will form the government," he said. "Nothing confirms the Orange forces' victory."

About 3,000 flag-waving supporters gathered Monday on Kiev's main Independence Square for what was billed as a victory rally.

The election was called early to put an end to a debilitating power struggle between Yushchenko and Yanukovych, who secured the premier's post after a strong performance in parliamentary elections 18 months ago.

Yushchenko and Tymoshenko were at the heart of the Orange Revolution alliance, which overturned a rigged presidential election win by Yanukovych. Yushchenko triumphed in the rerun but the alliance was swiftly undone by infighting.

An Orange return would mark a sensational comeback based on better than expected showings by Tymoshenko's bloc in Sunday's vote, when she said she wanted to form a new government with Yushchenko within 48 hours.

But they had yet to set up a formal coalition and analysts cautioned that almost any twist was possible given Ukraine's infamously complex and rancorous political scene.

The main Western monitoring group, the OSCE, gave Sunday's election a clean bill of health.

"The elections met levels of well-accepted European standards," said Adrian Severin, a European Parliament member in the observer team.

Washington, the European Union and an increasingly assertive Kremlin are all vying for influence in this strategic country, which has expressed interest in joining both the European Union and NATO.

Tom Casey, a US State Department spokesman, said Washington hopes "that this election will result in a government in Ukraine that can be effective and can serve the needs of the people."

"And we stand ready to work with whatever government results from these elections," he said.

Ukraine straddles key Russian gas export routes to energy-hungry EU clients and is also a testing ground for Western-style economic and political reforms in the former Soviet Union, where many countries are now led by authoritarian governments.

Source: AFP