Ukraine Votes In First Round Of General Election

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainians go the polls today in the first election since the Orange Revolution five years ago amid signs that the gap between the two leading presidential contenders is narrowing.

Ukraine's Prime Minister and presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko smiles as she greets people after casting her vote in Dnipropetrovsk during the first round of the presidential elections, 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.

Private polls circulating over the weekend suggest that Ukraine's prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko is closing the gap on the frontrunner, the opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich, ahead of today's first round vote.

The two are the likely winners of the 18-candidate race and are almost certain to face each other in a second run-off vote on 7 February. A poll conducted late last week puts Yanukovich on 34% with Tymoshenko on 25.5% – with Tymoshenko apparently gaining ground.

In third place with 12.5% is Sergey Tigipko. The 49-year-old multi-millionaire former banker is enjoying a late surge. He now appears to be in the position of king or queen-maker. The votes of his supporters will be crucial in the second round.

Analysts suggest that Tigipko may be persuaded to back Tymoshenko in return for the prime minister's job. His endorsement together with the votes of other defeated first round candidates may be enough to see Tymoshenko leapfrog Yanukovich, the defeated candidate in the last 2004 presidential poll.

Today's election takes place against the backdrop of a severe economic crisis in Ukraine. There is widespread disillusionment with the country's self-serving political elite. Incumbent Orange president Viktor Yushchenko is deeply unpopular. His latest poll ratings are a mere 5.5%.

In an interview with the Guardian Ukraine's deputy prime minister, Hryhoriy Nemyria, claimed that electoral violations were taking place ahead of today's vote, and hinted that the contest may be decided not in the ballot box but in Ukraine's higher administrative court.

Both Tymoshenko and Yanukovich are likely to accuse each other of fraud in the event of defeat and appeal. The court, however, currently has two rival judges – a symbol of the partisan political standoff that has paralysed Ukraine's governance over the past five years.

Nemyria, a member of the Block of Yulia Tymoshenko (ByuT), said that opinion polls "always" underestimated Tymoshenko's real support. He predicted that her formidable campaigning and speech-making skills would see her beat the gaffe-prone and "wooden" Yanukovich in the second round.

Nemyria was scathingly dismissive of Yanukovich, who served two prison terms in his youth for robbery and other crimes. "It would be a humiliation for Ukraine if Yanukovich becomes president. Can you imagine portraits of a criminal person who was in jail twice hanging in police stations and kindergartens?" he remarked sarcastically.

He described Yanukovich as a "a stupid guy". "He can't spell professor. He wrote it with two f's. He claims to have an MA in international law. Ask him what his favourite concept in international law is," he said mischievously.

Both Yanukovich and Tymoshenko have pledged to reset relations with Russia – reversing the pro-western Yushchenko's hostile policies towards Moscow. At the same time, however, both are broadly committed to Ukraine's integration with Europe, especially in economic matters, and to what has been dubbed multi-vector politics. Many Ukrainian voters dislike both of them equally.

A Yanukovich victory would mean an extraordinary reversal of the dramatic events of 2004, which saw the Supreme Court overturn Yanukovich's fraudulent victory in the second round of the presidential election, and order another vote which Yushchenko comfortably won.

Source: Guardian UK