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Ukrainians Go to the Polls for Crucial Election - 2002-03-31

Millions of Ukrainians are going to the polls Sunday to elect a new parliament. The vote is seen as a crucial test for the future of economic reforms in the former Soviet republic.

Voters are crowding into ballot places all over Ukraine in an election overshadowed by allegations of irregularities and the murder of one candidate on Friday.

Around 1,000 foreign observers are on hand to monitor the vote.

Opinion polls show a bloc led by reformist former prime minister Viktor Yuschchenko is in the lead. Mr. Yushchenko, who was ousted from office last April, remains popular with many Ukrainians because he implemented reforms that insured salaries and pensions were paid on time.

Most power in Ukraine is concentrated in the hands of parties loyal to President Leonid Kuchma, whose government has been wracked by allegations of abuse.

Due to complicated election rules, those parties may come out ahead in the voting and control the new parliament.

The other main force is the Communist Party, which wants to slow down reforms even further.

As the election campaign came to a close on Friday President Kuchma said he was doing all he could to insure the election would be free and fair. But international observers have already said the campaign was not fair, especially concerning media access for parties opposed to Mr. Kuchma. Newspaper and television coverage throughout the campaign has been dominated by candidates loyal to the president.

Also Friday, a candidate was shot and killed in the west of the country in what local officials called a political murder.

While officially part of Europe, many observers say Ukraine is caught in between East and West as it struggles to emerge from the political shadow cast by its powerful neighbor Russia.