Ukraine Chooses Between Reform, Stability

ReutersMembers of Ukraine's presidential regiment studying ballot papers in Kiev on Sunday.
KIEV -- Ukrainian voters put their corruption-tinged leadership to the test Sunday, choosing a parliament likely to bolster opposition forces led by suave banker Viktor Yushchenko, who is keen to overhaul the stagnant status quo.

The balmy election day came after a stormy campaign that saw two candidates killed, biased media coverage and rampant predictions of vote-tampering. Voters chose from more than 7,000 candidates to the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada.

Their key dilemma was whether to stick with President Leonid Kuchma and his allies or to risk reforms that could either bring long-awaited prosperity or flounder like reform efforts in the 1990s.

Comprehensive official results weren't expected until Monday. An exit poll by a coalition of international and Ukrainian groups led by George Soros' International Renaissance Foundation indicated a stronger-than-expected showing for anti-presidential parties.

The poll showed the reformist Our Ukraine party of former central banker and former Prime Minister Yushchenko in the lead with 25 percent, followed by the Communist Party with 20.5 percent; the pro-presidential For United Ukraine with 10.6 percent; opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko's party with 8.9 percent and tycoon Viktor Medvedchuk's Social Democratic Party with 7.1 percent.

"Ukraine's future very much depends upon these parliamentary elections," Kuchma said while voting in central Kiev for For United Ukraine, led by his chief of staff Volodymyr Lytvyn.

Security guard Serhiy Kulchitsky was looking in the opposite direction, toward Yushchenko's Our Ukraine. Yushchenko, who has an American wife and good relations with the West, champions reforms and is credited with producing Ukraine's first economic growth during his stint as prime minister. "He's the only real option," Kulchitsky said.

Yushchenko said while casting his ballot that he had "much pessimism" about the vote but expressed hope that it would be fair. Nearly 1,000 foreign monitors were watching for violations.

Elections commission head Mykhailo Riabets said there were no "serous violations" reported by midday.

But the independent Ukrainian Voters Committee said about 500 ballots disappeared from a polling station in Sevastopol, and false ballots were found in the town of Kramatorsk. In addition, there was some improper campaigning at polling places, and voting booths in one town were built for two people, rather than one, raising concerns about privacy of voting, the group said.

Polls indicated that voting patterns reflected Ukraine's persistent east-west divide. Ukraine's industrial eastern half includes many ethnic Russians and prefers pro-Moscow policies. Its western half aligns itself with Europe.

Candidate Mykola Shkriblyak, deputy governor of the Ivano-Frankivsk region in western Ukraine, died of gunshot wounds early Saturday after a Friday night attack by unidentified gunmen, his Social Democratic Party said.

Another candidate was killed last month, also in Ivano-Frankivsk.