Ukraine's Pro-West Parties Hold Fragile Lead In Poll

KIEV, Ukraine -- Pro-Western parties maintained a fragile lead Tuesday over their Moscow-backed rivals in Ukraine's cliffhanger parliamentary election, but both sides declared victory amid claims of fraud.

Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine's opposition leader, speaks to the press in Kiev, Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2007. Tymoshenko and Yushchenko's parties have declared themselves the winners of Sunday's vote and put forward plans for forming a new Cabinet. But Yanukovych has also claimed victory.

The outcome of Sunday's snap election remained in question even as final votes were counted, with the Orange Revolution alliance of President Viktor Yushchenko and firebrand reformist Yulia Tymoshenko just ahead.

Their arch rival, Moscow-backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, also claimed victory.

His Regions Party was on track to be the biggest single force in the ex-Soviet republic's parliament, although well behind the combined Orange coalition.

Even if Yanukovych formed his own alliance with smaller parties, he would be 1.65 percentage points behind his rivals, according to figures based on 97.5 percent of ballots counted.

Tymoshenko would likely replace Yanukovych as prime minister if the Orange coalition came to power, a stunning comeback for Ukraine's most flamboyant politician and figurehead of the pro-democracy 2004 Orange Revolution.

Reflecting tensions, the Regions Party bolstered its presence on Kiev's central square, the scene of countless demonstrations over the last three years in this country of 47 million people lying between Russia and the European Union.

Their blue tents were dotted across the historic plaza known as the Maidan, apparently in a bid to control the territory for future protests.

Yushchenko ordered a police investigation into possible ballot fraud in the east of the country, Yanukovych's stronghold.

"We are anxious about possible fraud," Yulia Yershova, a spokeswoman for Yushchenko's Our Ukraine/People's Self Defence bloc, told AFP.

Meanwhile, in a reminder of Ukraine's -- and the neighbouring European Union's -- reliance on Russian energy imports, natural gas giant Gazprom warned that it would cut supplies next month if Ukraine failed to meet debts of 1.3 billion dollars (900 million euros.)

The threat recalled the 2006 "gas war" when Moscow slashed supplies to Ukraine, with a serious knock-on effect for EU customers relying on Ukraine for transit.

Moscow has been at odds with Yushchenko and Tymoshenko ever since the Orange Revolution, a major defeat for Russian foreign policy, when Yanukovych was forced to rerun his rigged presidential election win.

Yushchenko won the rerun and Tymoshenko became prime minister, before internal fighting led to her dismissal and opened the door to Yanukovych.

With 97.5 percent of ballots counted Yushchenko's Our Ukraine/People's Self-Defence party and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc combined had 45.13 percent of the vote, Central Election Commission figures showed.

The Regions Party had 34.17 and could also count on support from the Communists at 5.36 percent.

However, even if Yanukovych secured support from the small Lytyvn party, which had 3.95 percent, his coalition's total vote count would be no more than 43.48 percent -- 1.65 percent short of the Orange total.

That meant the entire election could hang on the fate of the small Socialist party, which supports Yanukovych.

At last count, the Socialists had 2.90 percent of the vote, just under the minimum barrier of three percent for being awarded seats. If the Socialists get into parliament they could play the role of kingmaker.

Denying any nerves over the vote count, a source in Tymoshenko's party told AFP: "We've done our work. We're not worried. We are preparing to form a coalition."

But Yanukovych was also defiant, saying: "We won and I am sure that we will form the government."

The main Western monitoring group, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 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 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."

Source: AFP