Bitter Ukraine To Punish Orange Leaders At Polls

KIEV, Ukraine -- Disappointed with the failures of the Orange Revolution, Ukraine was on Sunday poised to hand the pro-Russia Viktor Yanukovich a comeback in presidential polls at the expense of his West-leaning rivals.

Coal miners exit voting booths at a polling station in the town of Gorlovka in the eastern Donetsk region, January 17. Disappointed with the failures of the Orange Revolution, Ukraine was on Sunday poised to hand the pro-Russia Viktor Yanukovich a comeback in presidential polls at the expense of his West-leaning rivals.

Opinion polls show Yanukovich with a lead of around 10-15 percent over his nearest challenger, the charismatic Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. But with 18 candidates the election appears certain to require a second round.

The 2004 Orange Revolution swept Ukraine's old order from power and raised hopes of a new era free of Kremlin influence for the country of 46 million that would set a precedent for other former Soviet states.

But President Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-EU figurehead of the Revolution, is set to record a dismal single digit rating and be eliminated in the first round, punished for failing to end corruption and implement urgent reforms.

"I voted for Yanukovich. I am sick of the Orange leaders. I want stability. These last five years were madness," said Volodymyr Efremenko, 54, a manual labourer, as he cast his vote in a Kiev school.

Yanukovich -- an ex-mechanic jailed twice for petty crime in the Soviet Union -- was ingloriously beaten in 2004 after the Orange Revolution street protests forced a re-run of presidential polls marred by mass vote-rigging in his favour.

Tymoshenko, famed for her peasant-style blonde hair braid, is seen as more in favour of EU integration than Yanukovich but has also played up her close ties to Russian strongman Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

"Today is not just the election of a candidate but when Ukraine determines its future for the next decades," Tymoshenko declared as she voted in her home city of Dnipropetrovsk alongside her rarely-seen businessman husband Olexander.

Voting in Kiev, Yanukovich confidently declared that the Ukrainian people "want change, and a new stage in the history of our country will begin very soon."

Turnout after the first three hours of voting was 15 percent, the election commission said, but polls were to stay open until 1800 GMT. The run-off vote is scheduled for February 7.

The bitter campaign saw the shady pasts of the candidates once again dredged up.

Yanukovich was jailed twice in the Soviet era for theft and assault, though the convictions were erased in the late 1970s. Tymoshenko herself was briefly detained in 2001 on smuggling charges that were later quashed.

"Increasingly, voters have a critical attitude to all politicians. They want to see new faces," said Volodymyr Fesenko, director of the Penta centre for political studies in Kiev.

The level of cynicism in Ukraine is such that one local politician is even standing under the name of Protivsikh (Against Everyone) while a website appeared last week offering voters the chance to auction off their votes.

Yanukovich should win around 40 percent of the vote in the first round and Tymoshenko 23 percent, according to the latest polls by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology.

Third place is expected to go to businessman Sergiy Tigipko, who appears to have made a late surge and is given an outside chance of springing a first round upset.

Andrew Wilson, a Ukraine expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the size of the gap between Yanukovich and Tymoshenko would be crucial in the first round.

"Less than 10 percent and Tymoshenko is confident she can close it in the second round. 10-15 percent and the election will be close. More than 15 percent is difficult," he said.

Yushchenko and Tymoshenko were comrades-in-arms in the Orange Revolution but later became sworn enemies, their relationship poisoned by a perennial power struggle and mutual accusations of criminal wrongdoing.

Since 2004, Yanukovich has sought to reinvent himself with the help of Western PR strategists and to show he is not a servant of the Kremlin but a defender of Ukrainian interests.

He has also sought more support in the country's Ukrainian-speaking west -- traditionally the heartland of Tymoshenko and Yushchenko supporters -- while holding on to his powerbase in the Russian-speaking east.

Source: AFP