Kuchma Wins First Round in Ukrainian Poll

KIEV -- President Leonid Kuchma and his main left-wing rival Petro Symonenko emerged Monday as the front-runners in Ukraine's presidential election and headed for a direct clash in a run-off vote in two weeks' time.

The Ukrainian Central Election Commission said that with 96 percent of Sunday's poll counted, the 61-year-old Kuchma had won 36.36 percent against 22.32 percent for Communist Party leader Symonenko.

However, the official preliminary results left open the possibility of Kuchma being defeated in the second round if leftist voters rally around Symonenko in a bid to stop the incumbent from winning a second five-year term to rule over this nation of 50 million people.

The third- and fourth-placed candidates, both left-wingers, gained about 22 percent of the vote between them.

But Kuchma's powerful campaign machine, with its strong leverage over the media and regional influence, was likely to turn up the heat on the Communists ahead of the run-off.

Both candidates appeared ready to form alliances to boost their positions.

"We must cooperate with those in a constructive mood, whether it be party leaders or our opponents from yesterday who will become constructive allies today or tomorrow," Kuchma's campaign chief Ivan Kuras told a news conference.

Symonenko, 47, said there could be talks with left-wing allies "to join forces with those who are ready today to struggle against the regime."

The Election Commission said there had been no major violations in Sunday's vote. Symonenko said there was no point talking about this. "Unfortunately, a partial examination in the courts will not change the situation."

The vote, Ukraine's third presidential poll since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, was in many ways reminiscent of Russia's 1996 presidential election when Boris Yeltsin met communist leader Gennady Zyuganov in a run-off.

Yeltsin won that showdown thanks largely to greater financial backing and media support, factors which Kuchma is also likely to exploit in coming days.

Kuras said Kuchma's team wanted to avoid a repetition of Ukraine's previous presidential election outcome in 1994, when incumbent Leonid Kravchuk led in the first round only to lose the run-off.

The king-maker in the Nov. 14 vote could be third-placed Olexander Moroz, the moderate Socialist Party leader, who won 11.29 percent of votes which could now go either way.

The results showed Symonenko, who exploited widespread nostalgia for "stable Soviet times," picking up most support in Russian-speaking regions in eastern and southern Ukraine, while Kuchma led elsewhere.

Kuchma's rivals have complained that the race, marred by mud-slinging and allegations of media bias in favor of the incumbent, was unfair. A parliamentary official told reporters there was evidence of vote rigging in some districts.

"Faced with such facts, it is difficult to talk about how fair these elections were," said Olexander Yelyashkevich, head of a special monitoring commission in the opposition-dominated parliament.

Some foreign currency traders linked a softening of the hryvnia currency's exchange rate against the dollar, now outside its official trading band for the year, to fears that the left had a better-than-expected chance of victory.

But many also said that the spectre of "leftist revenge" is only compounding existing pressure on the hryvnia, as Kuchma's government has engineered a recent massive payment of overdue salaries and pensions before the election.

"In my mind, this [weakening] is an objective process caused by the emission before the election," one dealer said. "Naturally, if Symonenko wins, the results will be even worse - he certainly favors emission."