Ukraine protesters hail poll breakthrough

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The Independent Online

Thousands of haggard, shivering and determined opposition protesters danced and sang in triumph yesterday after Ukraine's parliament approved amendments to ensure a fair ballot in the presidential rerun later this month.

Thousands of haggard, shivering and determined opposition protesters danced and sang in triumph yesterday after Ukraine's parliament approved amendments to ensure a fair ballot in the presidential rerun later this month.

The breakthrough came after weeks of political turmoil in the country that brought it to the brink of ethnic conflict.

Ukraine's opposition leader, Viktor Yushchenko, urged tens of thousands of supporters to leave the barricades and work for victory in this month's rerun of a rigged presidential election. He said that the opposition had won what it had demanded.

"We have a few days left until final victory. I call on you to be extra active in the days to come," he said. "Everyone should know his role, everyone should take part in the event we know as the 26 December re-election." After days of meetings with the opposition that brought the capital, Kiev, and other cities to a standstill for more than a fortnight, the parliament agreed to measures which the pro-Western opposition believes will help their candidate win.

New changes on electoral rules are designed to eliminate scope for the massive election fraud that triggered the demonstrations. The opposition, backed by Western election monitors, said that the government had used ballot-stuffing, falsification, intimidation and bribery to skew the results in favour of their candidate, the pro-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, in the election on 21 November.

Mr Yushchenko declared that events in parliament were a victory for the opposition. He thanked people for braving threats by the government and for transforming Ukraine into a real democracy, saying its rightful home was in in Western Europe. "When it was cold, when it snowed, when there was rain, you remained here," he said. "You have ensured we will not be ruled by bandits anymore where gangster rules operated.

"You demonstrated a confidence in what you were doing and have given the opportunity for tens of millions of other Ukrainians to see that another kind of Ukraine was possible.

During the demonstrations, in which where the presidential administration and other government buildings were surrounded by Yushchenko supporters sporting flags, ribbons and clothes in the orange colour of his election campaign, there were several days when it looked likely that the government would launch an attack using thousands of paramilitary police troops.

However, many police and army officers said that they would not attack the demonstrators and some appeared publicly alongside Mr Yushchenko. The Yushchenko loyalists warned that they would protect the opposition supporters against any attack. Referring to them, Mr Yushchenko said: "I thank the people in uniform that proved that when there was a test before them they showed they were with the people."

One of the methods used to fraudulently hand Mr Yanukovych several million votes was abuse of an absentee voting system that allowed his supporters to vote multiple times at different polling stations. The number of absentee votes for the re-run election on 26 December has been cut from 4 per cent to 0.5 per cent.

Other measures that have been agreed include a new composition of the central election commission, the body that was perceived as aiding the electoral fraud, and the sacking of the general prosecutor, who was condemned by the opposition for corruption and took no action to investigate complaints about breaches of electoral law.

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