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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A High Stakes Election in the Ukraine

The first round of Ukraine's crucial presidential election on Sunday was hardly free or fair. The pre-election media coverage was biased in favor of Viktor Yanukovych, the establishment candidate backed by the current authoritarian president, Leonid Kuchma, and his entourage. The polls themselves were marked by widespread falsification. The authorities cheated at almost every turn.

And yet Viktor Yushchenko, the main opposition challenger, won sufficient votes to show that he has a chance of winning when the two men compete in a runoff on Nov. 21. This in itself is a victory for democracy. By voting in larger numbers than the authorities seem to have anticipated, Ukrainians have turned the election into a real contest.

The contrast with most of the rest of the former Soviet Union could not be greater. Only in the small Baltic states, now members of the European Union, are there regular contested elections. They may be joined by Georgia, following the success of democratic forces in last year's overthrow by President Mikheil Saakashvili of his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze. But Georgian democracy remains fragile. Everywhere else, there is authoritarian rule, notably in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin steadily has strangled potential sources of dissent. By these standards, Ukraine's attempts to follow the democratic road are heroic.

Unfortunately, the authorities still have the power to rig the runoff in Yanukovych's favor. They control the media, the election machinery and the security forces. Behind them stands most of Ukrainian and Russian big business. Putin has interfered blatantly and personally, backing Yanukovych in a television interview broadcast throughout Ukraine.

Yushchenko's only weapon is public support. To win, he must show overwhelming popular backing. His aides believe the authorities could fix the result by up to 10 percent of the vote. So that is the margin Yushchenko must secure for victory. It is difficult but not impossible. Yushchenko should call his supporters out on the streets in peaceful demonstrations. But he must take care to avoid giving the ruthless Kuchma the slightest excuse for a violent crackdown. Yushchenko has a hard game to play. Too aggressive and lives could be lost. Too cautious and the opportunity could slip away.

The stakes are high. Yushchenko would almost certainly pursue liberalization and bring Ukraine closer to the West and the EU. Yanukovych would reinforce the authoritarian status quo and cement Russia's influence. A Yushchenko victory would be good for the West, just as a Yanukovych win would benefit Russia. The West should redouble demands for free and fair elections. But it should not overplay its hand. Yushchenko cannot win if he is seen as a stooge. The power to bring political change rests, as it should, with the voters.

This comment appeared as an editorial in the Financial Times.