Ukraine poll marred by fraud and unrest

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Ukrainians vote for a new president today against a backdrop of explosions, predictions of massive ballot-rigging and fears of widespread violence.

It is Ukraine's most tense election since the country, larger than France and with a population of 50 million, became independent following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It is also, many Ukrainian and foreign observers say, the country's most important election, and will largely decide whether it deepens its frail democracy and turns westwards or becomes increasingly authoritarian, like its neighbours Russia and Belarus.

More than 20 candidates are running for Ukraine's top job but only two, the pro-Russian candidate and current Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovych, and Viktor Yushchenko, leader of a pro-western democratic coalition, have a real chance of winning.

Mr Yushchenko warned there will be massive fraud today and that the authorities could use force. "We believe there is a colossal threat to Ukraine's election being held in a free, democratic fashion," he said. "Knowing our authorities, we can only expect that they will resort to cheating and brutality towards voters." If nobody gets more than 50 per cent of the vote today, the two with the highest share of votes contest each other in a run-off on 21 November.

Apprehension about a government clampdown heightened when a military parade to commemorate the liberation of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, from Nazi occupation was brought forward a week. Mr Yushchenko believes the switch was intended as a show of force to intimidate his supporters and to have thousands of soldiers close to hand near Kiev for use against mass demonstrations that are expected if voters believe the opposition has been cheated of victory.

Dirty tricks and violence have been regular features of the run-up to the election. The EU, the Council of Europe, both candidates in the US election and a cluster of Western monitoring groups have condemned the Ukrainian government for unfair tactics, principally for denying the opposition access to mass media.

All television channels except one are either state owned or controlled by people loyal to the government. All have either starved Mr Yushchenko of coverage or run anti-opposition propaganda.

The atmosphere has become intensely ugly in the final days before the election. Most independent observers agree that Mr Yushchenko would win easily in a fair contest, and the government seems to have been panicked by huge opposition rallies.

Police have raided the premises of opposition groups, detained scores of people, and claim to have discovered weapons and explosives. There have been bomb blasts in Kiev and other cities. The opposition said the weapons and explosives were planted amid talk of terrorism to create a pretext to introduce a state of emergency, followed by a crackdown.

Mr Yanukovych has a sinister reputation for violence and has twice served prison terms for assault. He acquired massive wealth through his connections to one of Ukraine's most notorious "clans" of oligarchic businessmen with links to organised crime.

Apprehension about possible violence rose yesterday with the announcement that 20,000 "Yanukovych supporters" were heading for Kiev and had been given extraordinary approval to cast their ballots in the capital instead of their home towns.

The opposition believes the supporters are paid thugs who will disrupt polling stations in Kiev, where Mr Yushchenko has huge support.

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