Heated Ukraine Polls Ahead

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine is readying itself for a fiercely competitive presidential election after the collapse of a proposed coalition deal between the two largest parties that would have redrawn political boundaries.

The failed talks leave unresolved for now long-running debates on changing the constitution to make Ukraine easier to govern after 4 1/2 years of turmoil since the "Orange Revolution" swept pro-Western politicians to power.

How to resolve that depends largely on who wins the election, with the race's two frontrunners the chief players in the failed deal - Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and ex-premier Viktor Yanukovich.

But, unlike in many former Soviet republics, the result of the contest-likely to take place in January - is far from predictable given a record of hard-fought and spirited, though violence-free, campaigns. "We are heading into a mad election campaign similar to Russian roulette, where no one knows who will win or lose," said Viktor Nebozhenko of the Ukrainian Barometer think tank.

After the election, constitutional change will again be raised. No one can run the country on his own and the oligarchs will force politicians to reach a deal. If Tymoshenko and Yanukovich can't do this, it will be done without them." Yanukovich leads polls with over 20 percent support. Tymoshenko is close behind on 15 percent, with a former speaker of parliament, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, third on 12 percent.

President Viktor Yushchenko, the prime minister's estranged ally from the revolution, trails in single figures. A deal had been mooted off and on for months between Tymoshenko and Yanukovich despite their long-running, public hostility to each other dating from well before the 2004 mass "orange" protests against election fraud when they stood on opposing sides.

It was uncertain how Moscow would have seen the deal as it has exploited constant turmoil in Ukraine. The European Union has long called for stability on its eastern border.

The accord was based on a coalition with 300 seats in the 450-seat parliament, enough to change the constitution and have the president elected by the assembly rather than by popular vote. Yanukovich would have become president and Tymoshenko would have remained premier, with the two forces dividing up key jobs.

The deal's collapse prompted the sort of recriminations that have tainted politics since Yushchenko took office in the aftermath of the 2004 mass protests promising quick reforms to bring Ukraine out of Russia's shadow and closer to the West. "What we saw was the triumph of what has become the typical logic of mistrust, suspicion and egoistic interests in Ukrainian politics," said Volodymyr Fesenko of the Penta think tank. "Tymoshenko and Yanukovich can now present constitutional reform as a bargaining chip in the campaign.

The deal's proponents saw a cure for the paralysis of endless rows, most pitting Tymoshenko against Yushchenko, as the financial crisis sent industrial production plunging by a third. It was also promoted as a historic chance to overcome hostility between nationalist western Ukraine, where Tymoshenko gets most of her backing, and the Russian-speaking industrial east, Yanukovich's main support base.

In the end, Yanukovich backed out, saying he could not envisage a president unelected by voters. Tymoshenko accused him of squandering a final chance for Ukrainian unity.

Yushchenko, openly derided by most Ukrainians, said he had helped counter the deal amounting to a "constitutional coup." But even with the deal pronounced dead, officials from both have suggested they could keep talking.

Yanukovich, who was backed by Moscow, was the big loser in the "orange" upheavals. Initially declared the winner of the rigged 2004 presidential poll, he lost to Yushchenko in a rerun ordered by the courts.

The deal to proceed with the new election was underpinned by heated parliamentary debate which overhauled the constitution by trimming the president's powers at the height of the protests.

All politicians agree a new revision of some sort is needed. Parliament speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, who played a key role in resolving the deadlock in 2004, said a consensus would have to be found after the election. "The main issue lies in how to preserve the country after the presidential campaign is over so that it does not disintegrate in the process of political confrontation."

Source: Kuwait Times