Worries about violence and fraud persist, but many Ukrainians seem to have embraced the opportunity to go back and correct mistakes by replaying last month's disputed presidential election.
The outcome of Sunday's polls, in which pro-Western candidate Viktor Yushchenko and Kremlin-backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich face off in an unprecedented third round, will measure how deeply Ukrainian political culture has been altered by a month of street protests, dramatic legal challenges, and world attention, experts say.
Apparent attempts to install Mr. Yanukovich in the presidency through fraud - and by allegedly poisoning Mr. Yushchenko - appear to have been thwarted by the peaceful uprising that became known as the "Orange Revolution," after the orange scarves and ribbons worn by Yushchenko supporters.
"It's too early to say whether the Orange Revolution has changed the way politics are done in Ukraine," says Jessica Alina-Pisano, a Ukraine expert at Colgate University in New York. "It created a new image of Ukraine in the world's eyes, and people who participated in the demonstrations report a new sense of empowerment. But the longer-term effects on the formal political process will depend on the outcome of Sunday's election."
Two weeks ago, Ukraine's Supreme Court ruled that the previous election cycle, which saw Yanukovich declared the winner, was tainted by fraud. They ordered a new vote for Dec. 26. This was followed by sweeping compromises in the Rada, Ukraine's parliament. The changes overhauled election laws to make them more tamper-resistant, reduced the constitutional powers of the presidency, and offered greater self-government to Russian influenced east Ukraine, which is pro-Yanukovich.
"The Orange Revolution has already settled some problems," says Pavel Erochkine, a Ukraine expert at the Center for Global Studies, a British think tank. "Such a regionally divided country should not have an all-powerful president, who inevitably pushes forward interests of one part of the country. This is why the recent constitutional reform that will transfer some of the president's powers to the Rada is good for Ukraine" in the long-run, he says.
The two candidates have campaigned for Sunday's court-ordered third round on very different terms than the previous round. In a televised debate earlier this week, Yushchenko looked and sounded like a president in waiting, while Yanukovich appeared almost to concede defeat by pleading - or warning - that it would be a mistake to forget about his stronghold regions in eastern Ukraine after the election. "You think, Viktor Andreyevich [Yushchenko], that you will win and become president of Ukraine," Yanukovich said. "You are making a huge mistake. You will be president of part of Ukraine."
An opinion survey conducted this week by the Kiev-based Razumkov Center, an independent polling agency, suggests that Yushchenko is ahead with 48 percent support among Ukraine's 30 million eligible voters, against Yanukovich's 39 percent.
Yanukovich's top backer in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin, who visited Ukraine twice during the previous election in thinly veiled campaign swings, also conceded this week that a Yushchenko victory is looking inevitable. At a meeting with German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Mr. Putin said Russia will respect the will of the Ukrainian electorate. "Leaders come and go, but the people remain," Putin said.
But concerns continue, stoked by rumors that Yanukovich supporters might reject a Yushchenko victory and flood into Kiev to replay the Orange Revolution in Yanukovich's trademark blue colors. "There are some alarming signals in the air," says Yushchenko press secretary Oleg Medvedev. "We are concerned that Yanukovich's team might try to disavow the election results. We are not sure that falsification won't be repeated. Little has changed in the politics of local elites."
At a Wednesday night rally in Kiev, Yushchenko warned thousands of followers to remain vigilant. "There are some forces preparing to disrupt, they are preparing brigades to come to Kiev," he said. "We will come to this square after the vote on Dec. 26 and we will stay until our victory is celebrated."
The atmosphere in Yanukovich's eastern base seems sullen and angry. "The mood of people here in Donetsk is tense," says Vasyl Khara, a Rada deputy and chair of the Donesk trade union federation. "People are scared, and have had enough of impatient, extremist actions in this so-called orange revolution. Our people are frightened of nationalists coming to power."
Yushchenko rebuffed calls for power-sharing with Yanukovich after the election, but otherwise adopted a conciliatory stance. He pledged that no Russian-language schools will be closed - a touchy issue in the Russified east - and said his first foreign visit will be to Russia. "As president Yushchenko will become president of all Ukrainians, [he will] put behind election politicking and work to soothe hurt feelings," says Myron Wasylyk, an American-born expert who works with the Yushchenko campaign.
More than 12,000 international observers will be on hand Sunday, or about one for every three Ukrainian polling stations. Even with the flood of observers and changes to the electoral laws, Ukrainian experts warn that the danger of fraud lingers. Trouble could arise from the new rules, which require equal numbers from both parties on each local election commission.
"People from western Ukraine are going to work in commissions in the east, and vice versa," says Alexander Chernenko, an expert with the Committee of Ukrainian Voters, an independent monitoring group. "They are hostile to each other, some have no experience. A lot of time is wasted sorting out their relations. There are lots of problems, but no time left."