Kuchma crushes Communist opponent winning second term in Ukraine

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The Independent Online

Despite the country's depressed economy, President Leonid Kuchma crushed his Communist opponent to win a second five-year term as leader of this former Soviet republic, according to election results Monday.

Despite the country's depressed economy, President Leonid Kuchma crushed his Communist opponent to win a second five-year term as leader of this former Soviet republic, according to election results Monday.

With more than 97 percent of the votes counted, Kuchma had captured over 56 percent in Sunday's runoff ballot and Communist Party chief Petro Symonenko had just under 38 percent, the Central Elections Commission reported.

Symonenko conceded defeat Monday, though he alleged major campaign violations and vote-rigging by Kuchma's camp.

"Everything that happened during the first and second round (of voting) demonstrates that Ukraine has become a police state," Symonenko told a news conference. "All kinds of methods were used to confuse people."

Symonenko accused Kuchma supporters of illegal propaganda on election day and of ballot-box stuffing, and claimed voters were pressured to vote for Kuchma by police, employers and local administration leaders.

Election commission chairman Mykhailo Riabets said official vote count will be released later in the week.

Kuchma, 61, had been expected to win despite widespread disappointment with his failure to improve Ukraine's anemic economy. The former Soviet technocrat warned throughout his campaign that Symonenko would revive the restrictions of Soviet times.

The convincing victory means Kuchma must now face the task of rescuing Ukraine from its post-Soviet economic and social quagmire. Many doubt that the president will succeed.

"The elections have not removed the conflict between society and the authorities, but have only aggravated it," said political scientist Mykola Tomenko of Ukraine's independent Politics Institute.

Kuchma has pledged to pursue market reforms and a pro-Western foreign policy, and says he will seek closer ties with Europe.

"Everybody is counting on investment activity ... We have a great chance to attract foreign investment," said Kuchma's chief spokesman Oleksandr Martynenko.

However, investment has been scare in Ukraine, a country with 50 million people that has been in economic decline since it gained independence in 1991.

Kuchma has offered few concrete measures to improve the economy or solve other problems, and few are expecting a dramatic improvement following his lackluster first term.

During the campaign, the president reminded voters of Soviet-era repression and privation, presenting himself as the guarantor of Ukrainian independence and democracy.

Despite discontent with Kuchma, a return to Soviet-style life as epitomized by Symonenko held even less appeal.

Symonenko tried to convince voters that they had nothing to fear from a Communist comeback, but acknowledged that Kuchma's scare tactics were effective.

"I did not fully succeed," Symonenko said after casting his ballot.

Symonenko had pledged to private property rights and support businesses, but his program also called for a government-planned economy with heavy state controls.

His supporters pointed at Ukraine's gloomy present - millions of workers who don't see their pay for months, idle plants, rampant corruption and bureaucracy and a once-rich cultural life that has faded away because of a lack of money.

Symonenko, 47, came in second to Kuchma in the first round of voting Oct. 31. Symonenko's showing in that ballot and in Sunday's polling indicated that the Communists and other leftists will continue to be a strong force in Ukrainian politics.

Some Ukrainians voted for the Communist candidate out of contempt for Kuchma, while for others, Symonenko represented hope for the future. Some Ukrainians voted against both.

"When some people vote against the current authorities and others don't believe anybody, it's a form of protest," Kuchma acknowledged, speaking to reporters Sunday at a polling station in Kiev.

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