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Ukrainian Presidential Election Marked by Uncertainty

Ukrainians vote Sunday in a presidential election fraught with uncertainty about the candidates, the process, and the result.

Voters have a choice of 18 hopefuls, none of whom is expected to gain 50 percent of the votes needed to avoid a runoff between the top two candidates.

Former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, humiliated by charges of vote rigging in the 2004 election, leads recent public opinion surveys with roughly 33 percent support.

Current Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, has been running in second place and is expected to face Mr. Yanukovych in the runoff. But she could be edged out by businessman Serhei Tihipko, who surged late in the campaign.

Incumbent President Viktor Yushchenko has single digit support. Mr. Yushchenko, hero of the Orange Revolution that brought him to power, has been widely blamed for Ukraine's economic troubles and failure to rein in government corruption.

Charges of vote fraud have swirled around the election from all sides. The head of Ukraine's State Security Service, Valentin Nalyvaichenko, has warned of possible attempts to intimidate voters with false demands to pay a poll tax, to register for military service, or to pay utility bills.

Authorities also closed a Web site that allegedly offered to buy votes. And the leading candidates traded charges of cheating. Ms. Tymoshenko accused Viktor Yanukovich of preparing "monstrous" election fraud. He responded along with President Yushchenko that only she has the means to rig the election.

Mr. Yanukovych says the comment made by Tymoshenko that the Regions' Party is preparing massive fraud betrays the intentions of a guilty mind. He asks, how can the opposition falsify anything, adding that only the authorities are able to do it; they have mechanisms for it.

But the spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Jens Eschenbaecher, told VOA accusations of massive fraud appear to be campaign rhetoric.

"In many instances these accusations were unsubstantiated," he said. "And the legal remedies that are available, like going to the court, going to the election administration to clarify these accusations have rarely been made use of."

Eschenbaecher says OCSE's long-term observers noted the campaign was relatively calm and provided candidates with opportunities to campaign freely throughout the country. He says Ukraine has a diverse media landscape, but notes concerns about biased reporting.

"... depending on who owns a TV station for example, and also the practice of candidates buying coverage, basically, in the news." said Eschenbaecher.

The spokesman expresses OCSE's concern about unclear laws regarding the addition of voters to lists on Election Day, including people who may have moved or are unable to go the polls for health reasons.

While many Ukrainians seem to lack enthusiasm for the candidates, turnout is expected to be high. Some voters say they do not want their unused vote to be stolen. Olha, a retiree in Kyiv, acknowledges her support for a minor and poorly funded candidate will make no difference. But she says she feels a civic duty to vote.

Olha says the sense of duty was handed down from the past, because Ukrainians are a law-abiding people. She adds, "If we have to we have to, but what I do with that vote is for me to decide."

The OSCE is providing about 600 of about 3,000 international observers monitoring Sunday's election. A number of exit polls are expected to provide an idea of the result soon after polls close. If needed, a runoff election is scheduled for February 7.