Pro-Western bloc leads in Ukraine vote

Times Staff Writer

Parties favoring a pro-Western foreign policy and closer ties with the European Union appeared headed for a narrow victory in parliamentary elections, according to exit polls.

Sunday’s balloting pitted against each other the same two sides that faced off in 2004 in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, when weeks of street protests forced a repetition of a presidential runoff election.

Yulia Tymoshenko, 46, the most fiery leader of those protests, seemed headed early today toward becoming prime minister again.

With about 25% of ballots counted, parties backing Tymoshenko had 49% of the vote compared with 35% for parties backing Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich and 4% for the bloc of centrist former parliamentary Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn.

Four exit polls, however, suggested a much narrower margin separating the top two vote-getters, which would make Lytvyn’s bloc a potential kingmaker.


Results closer to the predictions of exit polls might allow Yanukovich, whose presidential victory was overturned in 2004, to remain prime minister if he can woo the centrist party to his side.

Tymoshenko, speaking late Sunday after release of the exit poll results, claimed victory and predicted her Orange camp would agree on the makeup of a new government within days. She also expressed concern that her opponents might attempt to falsify the ballot count.

“I believe that the victory of the democratic forces is final,” she said. “I would like to warn that no falsifications will be able to change the final results. . . . The democratic forces will justify the trust and confidence shown by Ukrainian citizens.”

During the 2004 protests, Tymoshenko was the key ally of Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western candidate who nearly died of dioxin poisoning in a plot that some have suggested had ties to Moscow. He went on to win the presidency in the repeat election forced by the Orange Revolution.

Tymoshenko served seven months as prime minister, but Yushchenko dismissed her after a falling out. They patched up their alliance this year.

Yushchenko called Sunday’s early election to end a standoff after accusing Yanukovich of trying to consolidate his power by bribing opposition lawmakers to join his coalition.

All sides built their campaigns primarily on promises of a better life for Ukrainians. But the geopolitical aspect so visible in 2004, when Yanukovich was seen as Moscow’s candidate, was still evident.

The Orange bloc, which bases its power mainly in the western and central parts of the country, has stressed patriotism and developing close ties with the West.

Tymoshenko is a powerful speaker who inspires fervor among her supporters.

“Yulia is good. She’s a good economist. She knows her figures. And she’s charming,” said Anatoliy Yurovsky, 81, a retired metals industry technician who said he supported her. “She knows how to sweep an audience. Her problem is she tries to do things too quickly.”

Yanukovich, whose power base is in the more Russian- influenced south and east of the former Soviet republic, advocated a referendum to make Russian an official language alongside Ukrainian. The proposal was seen as a bid to firm up his support among those favoring warm ties with Moscow.

“I support Yanukovich, because he’s a man of his word,” Lydiya Chumakova, 79, an ethnic Russian who has lived in Kiev since 1946, said after voting. “First of all, he raised our pensions, and this is very important for us. Most important is that we are from Russia, and he’s supporting the idea of making Russian an official language. We want to have very close relations with Russia.”

Yanukovich says that he also wants to pursue good ties with the European Union and the U.S. His backers say he wants a balanced foreign policy favoring good relations with all nations.

The 450 seats in parliament will be divided proportionally among parties that poll more than 3%. If the Orange camp’s factions win a total of 45% or 46%, Tymoshenko’s coalition would hold a majority by a few seats.

President Yushchenko, speaking with reporters after casting his ballot Sunday morning, said voters faced a “choice between two alternatives: false stability and change.”

“I’m convinced that today the nation will opt for change,” he said. “I think that the elections will bring Ukraine mutual understanding and tolerance between political forces, stability and economic growth.”

Vadim Karasyov, director of the Institute for Global Strategies, a think tank in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, said a Tymoshenko Cabinet “would mean more influence for the president, and we would be moving toward European values more effectively and faster.”

A pro-Western government led by Tymoshenko carries the risk, however, that hawkish and pro-Russian figures determined to thwart her will gain dominance within Yanukovich’s Party of Regions, leading to increasingly bitter domestic politics, Karasyov said.

“If it’s a coalition of the Party of Regions and the Communists, the government will be more pro-Russian,” Karasyov added.