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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ukraine Polls Promise Fireworks

KIEV -- The headless corpse scandal revived, claims of an assassination attempt, a hunted man in exile, smear campaigns -- it's election time in Ukraine.

The country goes to the polls on March 31 in its 11th year of democracy to elect a new parliament. The vote is unlikely to change the political order significantly but it will lay the foundation for the presidential race in 2004.

"We're seeing this very much as a trial run, a litmus test if you like. The parties and president [Leonid Kuchma] will be testing the voters and, crucially, each other's allegiances," said one European diplomat in Kiev last week.

Kuchma has held sway by exploiting squabbling between more than a dozen factions in parliament. But even he has complained the multitude of parties hobbles policy-making.

The new parliament will be the battleground where a challenger could seek enough support to oust Kuchma, either before 2004 or during that year if he, as some analysts expect, seeks to alter the constitution to run beyond two terms.

Campaigning by 35 parties and blocs only started officially Saturday, but analysts and diplomats say the fight is already well and truly on -- and the gloves are off.

"Already there are some indications about alleged violations and aberrations. ... These violations need to be pursued," U.S. Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky said last week.

Visiting Kiev, she said there was concern about uneven access to media and the voter registration process.

Parliament is elected in a mixed system, with 225 deputies voted from a first-past-the-post system in single constituencies and 225 from party lists for a national constituency.

The Socialist Party and Yulia Tymoshenko bloc, groups most openly opposed to Kuchma and expected to win up to 10 percent of seats between them, already cry foul.

Aides to Tymoshenko, former deputy prime minister and one of Kuchma's most vocal critics, say the charismatic leader narrowly escaped an assassination attempt last month when her Mercedes collided with a Lada on a narrow Kiev street.

Badly injured, Tymoshenko will be unable to campaign for weeks.

The Socialist Party said its rights were being trampled after authorities refused to register exiled former presidential bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko as its candidate.

Melnychenko boosted a bid to topple Kuchma last year after Socialist leader Oleksander Moroz published tapes the bodyguard says he recorded in the president's office.

On them, a voice like Kuchma's is heard ordering aides to deal with Georgy Gongadze, a news reporter whose headless corpse was discovered in November 2000. Mass marches demanded that Kuchma resign. He denies any link to the killing and says the tapes were doctored to put words into his mouth.

The Supreme Court is considering an appeal to let Melnychenko run. Authorities have vowed to arrest him.

More mud was flung at Kuchma last week after deputies backed a motion from the Anti-Mafia parliamentary group urging an investigation into allegations of fraud in the early 1990s.

Kuchma's office refused comment on the motion, only the latest attempt to start a criminal case against the entrenched leader. It is expected to fizzle out, as the others did.

Polls show eight or nine parties or blocs will vault the 4 percent hurdle into parliament. The Communists are expected to keep 20 percent of the seats and remain the biggest faction.

They will be closely followed by the Our Ukraine faction, headed by former reformist Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, with up to 16 percent and the pro-presidential For a United Ukraine bloc, led by Volodymyr Lytvyn, head of the presidential administration, and Prime Minister Anatoly Kinakh.

Other likely winners include Women for the Future, the Social Democrats and the Greens, with about 6 percent.

Voters are likely to be dazzled by the number of parties, many of whose policies are hazy at best, even if the electorate gets the full picture from a media acknowledged to be far from free, manipulated by politicians and big business.

One of Ukraine's top independent television stations said last week that it faced the threat of closure after a court action brought by a company it said was backed by politicians and businessmen.

The court ruled that 1+1, which has a reputation for striving for balanced coverage, had an invalid license.

The reason: It was issued on "the wrong piece of paper."