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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ukraine Rivals Vying for Vote Edge

APSupporters of opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko rallying in central Kiev on Tuesday. The election will go to a runoff Nov. 21.
Supporters of Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko on Tuesday accused the Central Elections Commission of dragging its feet in counting votes from Kiev and western Ukraine, where Yushchenko's support is strongest, in what they said was an attempt to preserve a narrow lead for Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.

Amid angry scenes in parliament, Yushchenko ally Yulia Tymoshenko sparred with pro-Yanukovych deputies over alleged violations in Sunday's presidential election, calling Yanu-kovych "a rapist of the election" as both campaigns sought a crucial edge ahead of a second round of voting.

Western election observers have said the vote failed to meet standards for free and fair elections, citing state-controlled media bias in favor of Yanukovych, who has received the support of outgoing President Leonid Kuchma and the Kremlin. State interference in opposition activities also tarnished the campaign, observers said.

With nearly 97 percent of the votes officially counted, and neither Yanukovych nor Yushchenko likely to win more than 50 percent of the vote, both campaigns are vying to win over the 11 percent of votes that went to left-wing parties. The support of the Communists, who won 6 percent of the vote, and the Socialists, with 5 percent, could well be critical in deciding who wins the runoff, scheduled for Nov. 21.

By late Tuesday, the commission said Yanukovych was ahead by 0.66 of a percentage point after a count of 97.67 percent of the ballots. Officials said they expected further delays in collating the rest of the results, citing mistakes in paperwork by election officials around the country.

According to the commission's latest results, Yanukovych won 39.88 percent of the vote and Yushchenko 39.22 percent, the gap between the two shrinking marginally from 0.97 percent on Monday to 0.66 percent.

According to the commission's web site, in the six regions with the least votes counted -- all less than 90 percent -- Yushchenko is leading, while in the six regions with the most votes counted -- all more than 99 percent -- Yanukovych is leading.

In Kiev, for example, where Yushchenko leads with 62.25 percent of the vote, 84.74 percent of the ballots were counted.

"When the commission gives its latest updates, it deliberately delays the results from Kiev and western Ukraine to preserve Yanukovych's lead and give the impression through the media that he is leading the race," said Vladimir Bondarenko, head of Yushchenko's campaign headquarters in Kiev.

Commission spokeswoman Zoya Kazanzhi told Interfax on Tuesday that mistakes made by regional election officials were to blame for delays in the vote count, adding that in some cases the ballots had to be sent back for corrections. She said that, by law, the commission has 10 days to publish its final results.

Yushchenko's supporters poured scorn on officials' explanations, saying the counting delays fit into a definite geographic pattern.

"The commission is dragging its feet in regions where it is clear that Yanukovych lost," Natalya Mokridi, a Yushchenko spokeswoman, said by telephone from Kiev on Tuesday. "They are trying to buy time so they can find a solution."

Numerous telephone calls to the commission Tuesday failed to reach spokespeople, as officials repeatedly hung up on calls.

Commission chairman Sergei Kivalov did not show up at the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday, despite being requested by deputies to come and comment on the situation.

In Kivalov's place his deputy, Yaroslav Davydovych, told parliament that neither Yushchenko nor Yanukovych had gotten more than 50 percent of the votes needed to win in the first round.

Yushchenko's supporters in parliament accused the Yanukovych campaign and election officials of excluding tens of thousands of potential Yushchenko voters from voter lists and allowing Yanukovych supporters to vote several times in different polling stations.

Tymoshenko, a former deputy prime minister, ratcheted up the rhetoric in the parliamentary debate, saying, "The Ukrainian people will never elect a rapist of the elections as its president," in an apparent reference to Yanukovych's criminal conviction as a teenager, reportedly on rape charges.

Pointing at members of the pro-Yanukovych Ukraine's Regions parliamentary faction, who wore their trademark blue scarves, she said: "They came with ropes on their necks to hang themselves after Yushchenko is announced the winner of the second round."

Communist and Socialist deputies attending the session also refused to acknowledge the voting results, blaming the authorities for stealing their votes by bribing voters and election officials.

Socialist leader Aleksander Moroz said he was ready to seek an alliance with either Yushchenko or Yanukovych, but said he wanted to see concessions on land ownership and political reform, as well as on pulling Ukraine's troops out of Iraq, Interfax reported.

The Communists, whose leader, Pyotr Simonenko, won almost 6 percent of the vote Sunday, said they would not endorse Yushchenko or Yanukovych.

"Since representatives of oligarchs and bandits went into the runoff, we are inclined to vote 'Against All,'" Communist deputy Sergei Gmyrya told Itar-Tass on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the United States joined with European observers of the election in criticizing the conduct of the election and rebuking the Ukrainian authorities over reported violations.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer also expressed concern, saying, "The will of the people must not be distorted," The Associated Press reported.