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Ukraine Presidential Race Ends, Tensions High

  • Peter Fedynsky

Polls open in Ukraine Sunday following a bitterly fought campaign for the presidency between Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych. They defeated 16 other candidates in first round balloting on January 17. Finalists seem to have disenchanted more people than they inspired.

During the campaign, candidates Tymoshenko and Yanukovych portrayed themselves as honest and the other as a corrupt incompetent prepared to cheat to win the election. But it is not at all difficult to find Ukrainians who express complete disgust not only with their presidential candidates, but with the country's entire political establishment.

Voters say most politicians, judges, and public servants are corrupt and a new president is not likely to change the situation.

On Friday, the last day allowed for campaigning, both candidates staged rallies just a few hundred meters from one another in the shadow of two golden-domed cathedrals that grace the skyline of central Kyiv. Their choice of music provided a striking counterpoint to their campaign styles.

Mr. Yanukovych chose loud pop music that contrasted with a low-key speaking style that critics say uses a list of talking points given to him by Western campaign managers to conceal ignorance of the issues.

He told the crowd February 7th would signal the end of the Orange epoch, referring to the popular revolt against fraud perpetrated by his campaign in the 2004 presidential election. That revolt, the Orange Revolution, denied him the presidency.

Ms. Tymoshenko, chose very solemn church music for her event that was billed as a prayer for Ukraine. It was completely unlike her fiery oratory that detractors say borders on hysterics. She concluded her campaign with an appeal to God to bless the unity of the Ukrainian state, so that nobody will divide it anymore and make its people enemies of one another.

Yuri, an unemployed Tymoshenko supporter, told VOA the musical contrast reflected the character of the candidates.

He says each candidate reveals their true face, who they really are, who truly cares about the people, and who came to pray to the Lord that he grant the Ukrainian people a kinder fate and end to these lies and fraud.
The other candidate he says came to show he will only give young people dissension, fraud, pop music and the like. Yuri adds I think the Lord sees and knows what to do.

Ms. Tymoshenko was joined at the rally by clergy from various denominations and also Ukrainian Orthodox Church Patriarch Filaret.

During the campaign, Mr. Yanukovych also appeared with church hierarchs. He has solid backing in the Russian-speaking regions of eastern and southern Ukraine.

Slava, a young construction worker from the industrial city of Mykolaiv (Nikolaiv), criticizes Ms. Tymoshenko, saying consumer prices rose four time times faster than his salary while she was prime minister. Slava says a lot of dirty things are said about Yanukovych - that he sat in jail, he's an ex-con and has no education. But the worker says Yanukovych is a man of the people with a very good understanding of all of their problems. He grants that even if the candidate's efforts are minimal, he nonetheless pursues certain goals. Yulia, says Slava, knows how to raise issues, but nothing more.

Slava's unemployed friend, Yuri, came to the Yanukovch rally because he wanted to hear a well-known pop star who appeared on stage. He says he is not planning to vote, but if he does, it will be for none of the above. Yuri says he is simply fed up with what is going on in this country right now. He says he wants there to be jobs in Ukraine, so that people can have their own food, their own money and to be able to buy what they want with what they earned. These are the same things mentioned by the unemployed Tymoshenko supporter.

Ms. Tymoshenko accuses Yanukovych forces in parliament of giving him a free hand to cheat following a last minute rules change signed by President Viktor Yushchenko that lowers the number of local election precinct members needed for a quorum to certify results.

Mr. Yanukovych counters that the rule change was needed to prevent her from pulling her commission representatives in areas where she is weak to deny him those votes.

Both candidates have promised street demonstrations if the other one tries to steal the election.

Observers say protests will be difficult to sustain, because few people see any point in demonstrating following the failure of the Orange Revolution.