Ukraine's Supreme Court has ordered a new presidential runoff election, ruling in favor of the opposition's claim that the election was marred by widespread voter manipulation and fraud. The ruling means Ukraine's voters will again have a choice to vote for either Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych or opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko.
After five days of intense public examination, Ukraine's Supreme Court deliberated for some six hours, before invalidating the bitterly-contested presidential runoff election.
Announcing its ruling, in remarks broadcast on Ukrainian television, Chief Justice Anatoly Yarema said the court agreed with the opposition that the contest was riddled with fraud.
With his voice breaking at times, the chief justice said the result declared by Ukraine's Central Election Commission could not be allowed to stand. The commission declared that Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych won the election.
For the past week, the court has been reviewing an appeal by his opponent, opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko. Mr. Yushchenko had demanded that the runoff election be held again, due to what he called widespread fraud, especially in eastern Ukraine, a traditional stronghold of Mr. Yanukovych.
Mr. Yanukovych also filed an appeal about the results, but that was made irrelevant by Friday's ruling.
Mr. Yushchenko's lawyer, Mykola Katerinchuk, hailed the ruling as a victory for the opposition and for the prospects for democracy in Ukraine.
"The court's message to Ukraine is that law in Ukraine exists, and nobody has the possibility to [break] beat the law and do something illegal and not be punished," he said.
Mr. Katerinchuk also said it is a happy and historic victory for the tens-of-thousands of opposition supporters, who have camped out for days in freezing temperatures in central Kiev to push for the election results to be annulled.
There was no immediate reaction from government supporters, who have staged smaller counterdemonstrations in the capital for several days.
The ruling is a blow to outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, who favored the staging of an entirely new election, starting with the first round, and opening the field to new candidates.
The opposition rejected that position from the outset, saying the government was trying to hold onto power at any cost, by searching for a new candidate to replace Prime Minister Yanukovych.
During talks with international mediators earlier in the week, pro-government and opposition representatives agreed that, regardless of the outcome of the appeals, changes to Ukraine's electoral law would be needed to provide for any type of new vote.
Ukraine's parliament is expected to take up that issue immediately now that the court has issued its ruling. Some officials said Friday that the re-vote would be on December 26, but only parliament can set a date for a new election.