Ukraine's repeat election race under way

Susan Viets
Sunday 12 December 2004 01:00

Supporters of Viktor Yushchenko carried their cause to the pro-government eastern heartlands yesterday as campaigning in Ukraine's repeat presidential election race got under way. It follows the "orange revolution" of more than two weeks of street protests against last month's falsified voting results.

While followers of the opposition candidate waited for news from the Austrian clinic where Mr Yushchenko had again been admitted - which confirmed that dioxin poisoning had caused his mystery illness - they began erecting their trademark orange tents across the country, including in key south-eastern cities such as Donetsk, stronghold of Viktor Yanukovich, the Prime Minister who was announced the winner before the election was declared invalid.

The Russian-speaking south-east will be the battleground in the vote scheduled for 26 December. The outcome will determine whether Ukraine will emerge as a unified country or one with deep divisions between the south-east and the central and western regions, which now appear solidly to support Mr Yushchenko.

The Prime Minister is spending most of his time in Donetsk, where he was once governor and can still count on core support. But important members of Mr Yanukovich's campaign team, including his campaign manager and the former head of the central bank, Serhii Tyhypko, have abandoned him. However, he is still endorsed by key figures in Russia. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of Yushchenko supporters have already signed up to be volunteers in the campaign.

Life in Kiev is slowly returning to normal. After being the heartland of the orange revolution for 17 days, the mood has shifted as people return to work and begin to gear up for the election campaign. Some protesters are still in the capital, and tent cities remain at strategic points, including a large one along the central Khreshatyk Street.

Many Yushchenko supporters are worried about a compromise package accepted this week in parliament. In the deal, Mr Yushchenko and other MPs agreed to constitutional changes that strengthen parliament and weaken the President in exchange for important electoral reforms to help prevent fraud.

Yulia Tymoshenko, a key Yushchenko ally, voted against the package which she described as "a sellout of the protesters". In a café in central Kiev, postal workers chatting over coffee worried that the package was a Trojan horse that would enable the outgoing President, Leonid Kuchma, whom they call "cunning and sly", to somehow retain power under a new regime.

But Wednesday evening was time to celebrate. Mr Yushchenko and his team, including Ms Tymoshenko, returned to Independence Square to thank the students and everyone else who had taken to the streets to protest. Under a sky lit with a magnificent fireworks display, Mr Yushchenko blew kisses to the crowd; as the motor cavalcade pulled away from the square Ms Tymoshenko rolled down her window to shake hands with hundreds of adoring fans following her car.

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