Ukraine tense as election fraud allegations fly

The Ukraine Central Election Commission posted an announcement late Monday on its website showing Viktor Yanukovich is in the lead to be Ukraine's next president. But his main rival Yulia Tymoshenko is alleging fraud.

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    Supporters of Ukrainian opposition leader and presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych celebrate his victory during a massive rally in front of the Central Election Commission, in Kiev, Monday.
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    A supporter of Ukrainian opposition leader and presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych is seen during a massive rally in front of the Central Election Commission, in Kiev, Ukraine, on Monday.
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Ukraine held its breath Monday as glacial official vote counting see-sawed between Orange Revolution rivals Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yanukovich.

The streets of the capital, Kiev, are still peaceful. And nobody expects a replay of 2004's Orange Revolution, when thousands of protesters laid siege to the central Maidan square until an allegedly rigged election, won by Mr. Yanukovich, was overturned and fresh voting brought the Orange leader Viktor Yushchenko to power. But the mood is tense.

The winner is almost certainly Yanukovich, by a slender margin, just as most exit polls had predicted.

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Ukraine's Central Election Commission posted an announcement late Monday on its website saying that, with 98.5 percent of ballots counted, Yanukovich had 48.6 percent and Tymoshenko 45.8 percent.

"It's going to be impossible to dispute Yanukovich's victory; his margin is almost a million votes," says Dmytro Vydrin, deputy secretary of President Yushchenko's National Security and Defense Council, an official advisory body. "Tymoshenko will protest, but society is clearly not in the mood to join her in the streets this time."

Fraud allegations fly

But tensions continued. Allegations of fraud in Sunday's voting were flying fast and furious all day Monday, while lawyers for both sides were gathering in Kiev's Supreme Administrative Court in preparation for extensive legal challenges

Tymoshenko, who many describe as an indefatigable political fighter, remained silent through the day, postponing a press conference until Tuesday. Experts said that her lawyers were blocking vote tallies from Lugansk and Crimea -- Yanukovich strongholds -- and claiming that massive fraud had taken place.

A clean bill of health

International election monitors, however, endorsed the election as relatively clean and fair. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which fielded the largest delegation of observers, said in a statement Monday that the voting was "professional, transparent, and honest."

"Yesterday's vote was an impressive display of democratic elections. For everyone in Ukraine, this election was a victory," the observers, headed by OSCE, said in a statement. "It is now time for the country's political leaders to listen to the people's verdict and make sure that the transition of power is peaceful and constructive."

Russian monitors, the next largest contingent, had certified the election as satisfactory immediately following exit polls showing Yanukovich ahead.

"The verdict of the international observers will be taken very seriously by all sides in Ukraine," says Vadim Karasyov, director of the independent Institute of Global Strategies in Kiev. "There almost certainly was fraud -- it's common in Ukrainian elections -- but it really doesn't look likely that Tymoshenko will be able to prove enough to overcome Yanukovich's lead. It's probably all over but the shouting."

Despite the judgment of the international monitors, most Ukrainian experts agree that significant irregularities probably did take place.

But how much fraud was there?

"There will be allegations of fraud, no doubt much of it true, and we'll all learn a lot about it in the coming days," says Vira Nanivska, director of the City Institute, an independent political research center in the staunchly pro-Orange stronghold of Lviv.

Experts point to the failure of the Central Election Commission to report voter turnout figures for almost two hours after the polls closed as a major warning sign that final vote tallies might have been tampered with. "The turnout that was announced, almost 70 percent, looks way too high, given the widespread public disillusionment with politics and the much lower turnout in the first round of the voting last month," says Karasyov.

Experts say vote buying is a common practice on all sides of a Ukrainian election, as is repeat voting using the identification papers of relatives who are working abroad (nearly 3 million Ukrainians are away, working in Russia or the European Union, at any given time).

A vibrant democracy

Despite all the sound and fury that seems to accompany Ukrainian elections, some experts say, it's worth remembering that the country has once again demonstrated that it has a vibrant democratic system, the last of its kind among Russia's immediate neighbors.

"Ukraine has the most free, most competitive electoral system in the former Soviet Union," says Tammy Lynch, an expert at Boston University's Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology and Policy. "The country is an incredible example of a burgeoning democracy, against many odds."

And in Ukrainian-speaking western Ukraine, where the vote went overwhelmingly Tymoshenko's way, people will just have to accept the triumph of their old adversary Yanukovich, says Ms. Nanivska.

"Nobody here wants to fight, and everybody says the emotional task now is to come to terms with defeat," she says. "It's a trial of democracy, and we must undergo it."

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