Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

Observers: Poll abuse in Ukraine

CNN.com - 22 November 2004

Results give PM lead, but challenger cries foul

With nearly all ballots counted, Ukraine's prime minister retained his narrow lead Monday in the bitterly contested presidential election, which Western observers said was marred by irregularities and fraud, and the reformist opposition leader called for mass protests.

The Ukrainian Elections Commission said Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych had 49.42 percent to Viktor Yushchenko's 46.70 percent, with 99.38 percent of precincts counted.

Earlier partial results showed Yanukovych less than one percentage point ahead.

But an exit poll, conducted under a Western-funded program, gave Yushchenko 54 percent of the vote to Yanukovych's 43 percent.

Another poll put Yushchenko ahead by 49.4 to 45.9 percent, the Interfax news agency reported.

Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe, the European Parliament and NATO criticized the balloting.

"This election did not meet a considerable number of international standards for democratic elections," said mission leader Bruce George.

"The abuse of state resources in favor of the prime minister continued, as well as an overwhelming media bias in his favor."

Even stronger criticism came from Richard Lugar, chairman of the U.S. Senate's Foreign Relations Committee.

"It is now apparent that a concerted and forceful program of election-day fraud and abuse was enacted with either the leadership or cooperation of governmental authorities," said Lugar, who was sent to Kiev as U.S. President George W. Bush's envoy.

Yushchenko, addressing a crowd of some 10,000 supporters in Kiev's main Independence Square, called on his supporters to set up tent camps in central Kiev, and many tents were already blocking traffic.

"We will not leave this place until we win," Yushchenko said. "The people's will cannot be broken. People's votes cannot be stolen."

Many protesters said they would return to the square after heading home to get warmer clothes. Meanwhile, protesters set out from Yushchenko's western stronghold, Lviv, bound for Kiev.

The Lviv city council announced that it recognized Yushchenko as the president and was ready to fulfill "all of his orders and decrees."

Yushchenko's key ally, Yulia Tymoshenko, called for a general strike.

"Stop working, stop learning, make it all stop," she said.

Yushchenko said that in addition to the tent camp, the opposition would demand an emergency parliamentary session and challenge suspected violations in the courts.

The election was seen as determining whether this ex-Soviet republic of 48 million tilts toward the West or its traditional patron, Russia. The bitter campaign sparked fears that Ukraine could erupt in violence as distrust in the government's ability to conduct a credible vote grew.

Yushchenko foes claimed that the reformist's supporters gathering in the square could try to foment civil unrest with the aim of seizing power.

The Central Election Commission office was heavily guarded by riot police and armored vehicles. Several buses with Yanukovych supporters were parked nearby.

Both camps have complained of voting problems, and there were numerous media reports of scuffles at polling stations, observers being barred and journalists being detained.

Yushchenko contended that some precincts in Yanukovych strongholds showed improbably high turnout figures of as much as 96 percent.

"These figures are more reminiscent of the kind of results we might have witnessed in Turkmenistan," commented NATO election observer Charles Tannock, referring to a repressive former Soviet republic in Central Asia.

Yushchenko's campaign complained that Yanukovych supporters were given absentee ballots and bused out of their native regions and back again so they could vote twice. Yanukovych's side, meanwhile, said some stations were refusing to provide absentee ballots in violation of the law.

Serhiy Kivalov, the head of the Central Election Commission, has said that the opposition "can complain to courts."

"We were counting votes in full accordance with the law," Kivalov said.

Yushchenko says he wants to push the country to greater integration with Western Europe and has suggested seeking NATO membership.

Yanukovych has proposed making Russian a second official language and supports continuing Ukraine's participation in an embryonic economic union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.