Ukraine's two contenders to replace outgoing President Leonid Kuchma traded attacks on everything from vote fraud to fostering separatism during a live two-hour nationally-televised debate late Monday in Kiev. It t was the last chance by each candidate to reach out to Ukraine's voters, who return to the polls Sunday for a re-run vote ordered by the nation's Supreme Court.
With their political fortunes reversed heading into the re-run presidential vote, opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko played to his front-runner position by keeping Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych on the defensive during much of the debate.
Mr. Yushchenko directly accused Mr. Yanukovych of stealing three million votes during the past run-off election, which was invalidated due to massive voter manipulation and fraud. Holding out his hands, Mr. Yuschenko added that he personally had never stolen anything - a direct reference to Mr. Yanukovych's criminal record.
In turn, Mr. Yanukovych told Mr. Yushchenko that - if he is elected president, he will only be the president of one-half of Ukraine - the pro-reform West. He also suggested that his supporters in Ukraine's eastern industrial regions might not be willing to accept a Yushchenko win and could turn up in the streets of Kiev after the December 26 poll.
At least three times during the debate, he also invited Mr. Yushchenko to join forces with him an appeal ignored by his rival.
Kiev-based independent political analyst Ivan Lozowy likens Mr. Yanukovych's comments to idle threats and says he thinks they will have little effect on what actually happens during Sunday's run-off election.
"[Prime Minister] Yanukovych's message of consolidation reaching out somehow to heal the country's rift - sounded a bit strange and I would say even weak because they sounded like Yanukovych was, in the words of another commentator today on Ukraine's radio, '[Mr.] Yanukovych sounded like he was actually looking for a place in a country that was run by [Mr.] Yushchenko,'" he said.
Mr. Lozowy said even the prime minister's demeanor of casting his eyes downward throughout the debate and shifting his stance, hinted of discomfort and resignation. Mr. Lozowy says as he sees it, front-runner Viktor Yushchenko has little to worry about as far as securing victory - thanks to his stronger showing in the latest debate.
"If, as it looks right now, [Mr.] Yushchenko wins with a large margin at least over six or seven percent," he said. "He does not really have to worry about these kinds of things because given the general sort of attitude and the specific way in which Ukrainian courts work, nobody is going to overturn that. So, he needs a convincing victory that will put the final seal on that."
Millions of Ukrainians again packed bars and restaurants to gather around television sets to watch the debate. But many admit it will have little overall effect on how they vote, saying they have already made up their minds.
Given all the controversy and international attention surrounding the vote, official results are expected to take one week or more. But first results could be released within as little as 24 hours after the polls closed. Nearly 9,000 international and local observers will be on hand to monitor the presidential ballot and ensure that - this time - it meets international standards.