Millions of Ukrainians will head to the polls Sunday for the third time in as many months to elect a new president to replace outgoing President Leonid Kuchma. Ukraine's Supreme Court ordered the re-run after more than two weeks of massive opposition street protests that, at one point, threatened to split the nation in half.
The two presidential candidates voters will be choosing from remain the same, but their political fortunes have reversed. Opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko is now considered the front-runner heading into Sunday's re-run presidential vote, after spearheading the successful street protests that resulted in not only the new election, but also landmark changes in Ukraine's electoral law and Constitution.
Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who was the declared the winner for a time, has said he has little choice but to compete in Sunday's poll, but he does so without the support of his one-time boss and advocate, President Kuchma, and numerous key campaign aides.
Latest polls indicate Mr. Yushchenko looks likely to win the December 26 ballot in part due to the damage Mr. Yanukovych's reputation suffered after the Supreme Court stripped him of his victory because of massive voter manipulation and fraud.
Mr. Yushchenko got a further boost after doctors confirmed that he was poisoned with massive doses of dioxin during the campaign. He has accused government officials of being behind the poisoning that ravaged his face, a charge numerous government officials, including Mr. Yanukovych, have denied.
Mr. Yushchenko is urging his supporters to stay true to the cause and return to the streets until absolute victory is secured.
Eighteen-year-old student Yaroslava is one person who has answered his appeal. She's been camped out in Kiev's sprawling tent city since the November poll.
Yaroslava said she will stay in the streets until Mr. Yushchenko, the man many here call the peoples president, is declared the winner.
Mr. Yushchenko has vowed not to take revenge against any pro-government supporters in the event he wins the election. He says he sees consolidation of the nation as the main objective for the future. He also pledges to align Ukraine more closely to the West.
His rival, pro-Russia Prime Minister Yanukovych, has said that his supporters might not be able to accept a Yushchenko presidency and could march on Kiev in protest. He has also hinted about possible legal challenges following Sunday's vote.
Kiev-based independent political analyst Ivan Lozowy says he thinks the recent electoral changes aimed at preventing repeat fraud, along with the massive presence of foreign and local observers, will lead to a cleaner poll this time around. But he says that does not mean the election will be free of problems.
"It's not going to be very free and fair because [Mr.] Yanukovych is putting up a last ditch attempt to somehow rescue his candidacy and he's obviously going to use the oblasts [regions] Donetsk, [the] far eastern oblast of Luhansk, Crimea, where falsifications still remain a great danger because the local government, the local election commissions these are well-oiled machines for falsifying
elections and they haven't really been shifted from the levers of power from control over the electoral process," said Mr. Lozowy.
At the same time, analyst Lozowy says there have been a lot of changes in a relatively short period of time, including the creation of a new Central Election Commission and several high-profile resignations of local governors in the east, where much of the electoral fraud was found.
International attention surrounding Sunday's vote remains high. Officials in the United States and Europe say they hope the repeat election will bring more open and trustworthy results. Russia says it hopes for a poll free of foreign influence.