Will election see Russia's 'stooge' become Ukraine's Comeback Kid?

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The Independent Online

The "Russian stooge" who spectacularly lost Ukraine's orange revolution and saw his dream of becoming president shattered by hundreds of thousands of street protesters has staged a remarkable comeback that could bring his party a win in crunch elections tomorrow.

In an improbable turn of events, the party of Viktor Yanukovych, the Party of the Regions, is forecast to win more votes than any other.

In December 2004, Mr Yanukovych looked like a broken man who had been overtaken by the march of democracy and the political fashion of the moment: velvet revolutions. His campaigners were exposed as electoral cheats who had tried to rig the vote in his favour and he was denounced as President Vladimir Putin's puppet.

The hero of the revolution, Viktor Yushchenko, was hailed as a progressive pro-Western champion of justice and went on to become President.

It seemed inconceivable that Mr Yanukovych would again be a contender to rule Ukraine. Effigies of him were burnt in the street, his youthful criminal record was dug up, and there were calls for him to be jailed.

But if a week is a long time in politics, a year and three months appear to be an age.

Yesterday Mr Yanukovych's supporters massed on a central Kiev square to chant his name as he promised them victory after a poll predicted his party would win just over 30 per cent of the vote. The same poll gave Mr Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party some 17 per cent.

No matter how well he does, 55-year-old Mr Yanukovych will not become Ukrainian president, because the elections are parliamentary not presidential.

But his comeback could give him a big say in the formation of a new government and in the appointment of a new prime minister, because it is the new parliament and not the president that will choose who gets which job.

Perhaps more tellingly, Mr Yanukovych's unlikely political resurrection shows how sorely Mr Yushchenko and his orange team have disappointed, and how damaging a split at the heart of the revolutionary team has proved. Last September, Mr Yushchenko sacked his entire government including his prime minister and heroine of the orange revolution, the charismatic Yulia Tymoshenko. Mr Yushchenko cited infighting in the cabinet, personality clashes, and corruption.

Ms Tymoshenko, known to her fans as "the orange princess" and "Ukraine's Joan of Arc", was devastated. The glamorous 45-year-old is looking for a comeback in Sunday's election which she is contesting under the banner of her own political movement, Yulia's Bloc.

Her party is forecast to win about the same number of votes as Mr Yushchenko's and her hope is that he will make her his prime minister again, and that the orange revolution will be back on track.

If Ms Tymoshenko and Mr Yushchenko reunite, she believes they might be able to keep the resurgent Mr Yanukovych from wielding too much influence. She insists she has not got a bad word to say about the man who effectively ditched her, President Yushchenko.

"Our support for the President is guaranteed because we did a lot to make him President," she says. "I would like to return to power to strengthen his position." Though she concedes that the orange revolution has disappointed many, Ms Tymoshenko is passionate that it has changed Ukraine irrevocably and for the better.

If she wins back power, she promises to root out the unscrupulous oligarchs and officials she failed to sack first time round.