Ukrainian reformers edge out Communists

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Reformers secured a slim victory over the Communist Party in Ukraine's parliamentary elections, according to results today – but faced a formidable challenge from a pro­presidential movement whose surprising showing fueled allegations of fraud.

Voters sick of Ukraine's status quo hailed the win by the party of pro­Western ex­Premier Viktor Yushchenko. But the close race highlighted deep divisions over Ukraine's direction more than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

International observers said the campaign clearly favored federal and local authorities, and reports of voting violations were rampant.

The vote tested President Leonid Kuchma's popularity after eight years ruling this France­sized nation of 49 million. The campaign of the pro­Kuchma party For United Ukraine, created just a few months ago, was seen as a rehearsal for him or a hand­picked successor in 2004 presidential elections.

With 79.5 percent of the vote counted by Monday evening, Yushchenko's Our Ukraine had 22.83 percent, the Communist Party had 20.22 percent, and For United Ukraine had 12.69 percent, according to the election commission.

The opposition Socialist Party of ex­parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz had 7.19 percent and the fiercely anti­Kuchma party of ex­deputy premier Julia Tymoshenko had 6.89 percent.

However, the percentages won by the parties account for only half of the 450 seats in the Verkhovna Rada. The other 225 legislators are elected directly in local races, where candidates from the pro­presidential party dominated.

Monday evening's results indicated Yushchenko and the pro­presidential party could have about 110 seats each, with the Communists at about 65. That would leave no one with a clear majority, meaning much would depend on what alliances are formed.

Kuchma praised the election results and insisted the vote was conducted democratically. "Ukraine's choice ... comes down to simple values clear to everyone: independence, stability, prosperity," he said in a statement Monday.

"I am for cooperation with all constructive powers that are ready to share responsibility for the country's future and are able to unite in a stable parliamentary majority," he said.

Yushchenko, speaking to reporters Monday, questioned the official results and accused the authorities of "cynical behavior," but expressed no doubt that his party would emerge the winner.

Andreas Gross, vice president of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, slammed the authorities for pressuring election workers. He told The Associated Press that this could have affected the outcome, though it was unclear by how much.

Election Commission chairman Mykhailo Riabets cited minor voting irregularities that he insisted wouldn't affect the overall results.

The reform­averse Communists dominated the outgoing parliament, and their leader Petro Symonenko came in second in 1999 presidential elections, but their popularity has been eroding.

Yushchenko enjoys a strong mandate for change. His popularity stems from his success in invigorating Ukraine's moribund economy as prime minister, and injecting optimism into a populace defeated by years of inflation and wage delays.

A brainy and brawny ex­banker, Yushchenko has good relations with the West but insists that pleasing Ukrainians is his top priority. He says Ukraine should rely less on foreign aid, such as the dlrs 2 billion it received from the US government over the past decade.

Kuchma, meanwhile, has been accused of silencing opponents, profiting from illegal arms sales and rampant corruption – charges he strongly denies.

Reflecting a deep disillusionment with post­Soviet politics, more than 1 million voters cast ballots marked "against everyone."