Dirty tricks, disorder and a rigged election

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The Independent Online

Ukraine was last night teetering on the brink of disorder after a presidential election that was at best suspiciously short on transparency and at worst outrageously rigged. In scenes reminiscent of disputed elections everywhere, supporters of the supposedly defeated candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, mounted mass demonstrations, while Kiev and the westernmost city of Lviv declared open revolt, recognising Mr Yushchenko as the winner.

Ukraine was last night teetering on the brink of disorder after a presidential election that was at best suspiciously short on transparency and at worst outrageously rigged. In scenes reminiscent of disputed elections everywhere, supporters of the supposedly defeated candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, mounted mass demonstrations, while Kiev and the westernmost city of Lviv declared open revolt, recognising Mr Yushchenko as the winner.

This worst of almost all possible outcomes had been on the cards long before the campaign began. The outgoing president, Leonid Kuchma, had backed his prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, proclaiming him the candidate of stability. Mr Yanukovych, who favours close relations with Russia, also had the very public backing of President Putin. Mr Yushchenko campaigned on pro-Western platform of Nato membership and free-market reform, and enjoyed the equally overt backing of the US.

There was nothing inherently bad about any of this. The two candidates offered quite different visions for the country. Ukrainians had a real choice of the sort that only the Baltic States among the former Soviet satellites have so far managed to offer their voters. And this was a real election: opinion polls consistently showed the result was too close to call. It was not a foregone conclusion.

This did not prevent Mr Yanukovych and his backers from trying to make it so. Dirty tricks abounded. OSCE monitors judged that both the first round and Sunday's run-off fell far short of European norms. The US Senator Richard Lugar spoke of "a concerted and forceful programme of fraud".

Continuing discord is now guaranteed. However the election is eventually resolved, half the population will not accept the result. If Mr Yanukovych is declared president, his international credibility will be near zero; Ukraine will be left out in the cold. Its course will be inward and eastward, not outward into Europe. The minor consolation is that the government machine was unable to guarantee its candidate the sort of landslide victory the old Soviet regimes once delivered. Scarred but defiant, Mr Yushchenko is vociferously contesting the result.

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