Ukraine tense as Tymoshenko moves to contest vote

Yulia Tymoshenko was refusing to concede her narrow defeat by Viktor Yanukovich in Sunday's Ukraine elections. Many say it's doubtful she can prove violations of fraud in the brief period allowed for court challenges.

Sergei Chuzavkov/AP
A member of the Party of Regions reads a newspaper in Ukraine's parliament in Kiev, Ukraine, on Tuesday. Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has refused to concede the presidential race to opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych and plans to legally challenge the results.

Few Ukrainians could have been surprised to awake Tuesday morning to the news that Yulia Tymoshenko, the fiery heroine of the Orange Revolution, was refusing to concede her narrow electoral defeat at the hands of her old antagonist, Viktor Yanukovich, and that her supporters were planning to challenge it in the courts.

"I will never recognize the legitimacy of Yanukovich's victory with such elections," Ms Tymoshenko told close supporters late Monday, according to the online Ukrainska Pravda daily newspaper.

Members of her team said they were preparing a "strong case" would show the election was stolen by massive falsifications of the vote counting, and violations of election laws, mainly in Mr. Yanukovich's stronghold of eastern Ukraine.

"We have a lot of witnesses and evidence of irregularities in many polling stations, and this needs to be placed before the courts to determine whether the level of fraud was large enough to overturn the result," says Olga Bodnar, a parliamentary deputy with Tymoshenko's bloc.

"The margin [of Yanukovich's victory] is just 700,000 votes. That's not so much in a country of 48 million people," she says. "This issue definitely needs to be tested in court."

Doesn't like to accept defeat

Tymoshenko, a former energy tycoon who earned the sobriquet "gas princess" for her alleged wheeling-and-dealing business style, is held in awe by supporters and opponents alike for her legendary determination, charismatic public appeal, and formidable campaigning talents.

"It's not in Tymoshenko's nature to accept defeat," says Alexander Chernenko, chairman of the Committee of Ukrainian Voters, a grassroots monitoring group. "And she knows that her supporters would never forgive her if she failed to challenge Yanukovich's win."

Many experts agree that fraud is a perennial plague of Ukrainian elections, but most say it's doubtful enough specific violations can be proven in the 10 days or so allowed by Ukrainian law for court challenges to seriously call Yanukovich's victory into question.

With virtually all the votes counted and posted by Ukraine's Central Election Commission, Yanukovich had widened his lead to 3.4 percent, with 48.95 percent of the vote, followed by Tymoshenko with 45.48 percent.

Testing stability?

On Monday, international election monitors all but explicitly called upon Tymoshenko to concede for the sake of Ukraine's stability.

"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," the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observers said in a statement.

But experts appear divided. Some suggest that Tymoshenko is undermining her own carefully honed image as a champion of democracy and a sophisticated, Western-style politician.

"I'm very disappointed with Tymoshenko's behavior," says Vladimir Paniotto, director of the independent Kiev International Institute of Sociology.

Mr. Paniotto, one of Ukraine's best-known pollsters, says it's unlikely that Yanukovich's forces engaged in any significant vote-rigging. "In this election, the exit polls closely matched the final result," he says. "That's a very strong indicator that the elections were legitimate."

Supporters of Yanukovich are furious with what they see as Tymoshenko's intransigence. They point out that, even after all the bitterness and turmoil of the Orange Revolution in 2004, Yanukovich gracefully conceded his own narrow loss to Viktor Yushchenko, following an unprecedented third round of voting.

"Tymoshenko is acting irrationally," says Vadim Kolesnikov, a parliamentary deputy with Yanukovich's Party of Regions. "Maybe she's trying to look like a martyr? This is no good for her, or for Ukraine."

But other experts insist that there were too many reports of irregularities in Sunday's voting to let the matter go.

"Tymoshenko is right, there has to be a recount, especially in the [eastern Ukraine] where Yanukovich won over 90 percent of the votes in many places," says Oleg Soskin, director of the Institute of Social Transformation, an independent Kiev think tank.

Would an investigation serve democracy?

And some argue that, despite the well-intentioned appeal from international observers for Tymoshenko to concede, Ukraine's struggling democracy might be better served by a full investigation of the fraud allegations.

"In the United States, candidates use the courts to solve election conflicts, and no one suggests it means the end of democracy. Why shouldn't Ukraine be allowed to do the same?" says Tammy Lynch, an expert with Boston University's Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology, and Policy.

"Rather than condemning this process, the West should be congratulating all of Ukraine's politicians for a good campaign, a systemically fair election and a commitment to use legal channels to resolve disputes," she says.

Tymoshenko's political problems may be just beginning.

Yanukovich's Party of Regions holds the largest bloc in the 450-seat Supreme Rada, with 175 seats, and it is currently in opposition to the ruling coalition, which comprises the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (156 seats), the pro-presidential Our Ukraine (76) and ex-speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn's bloc (20).

Mr. Kolesnikov says that talks are underway aimed at cobbling together a fresh, pro-Yanukovich coalition that would mount a vote of no confidence, as early as Thursday, against the incumbent prime minister, Tymoshenko, and her cabinet.

Yanukovich has repeatedly declared that, once elected, he will move swiftly to remove his old rival from government altogether.

Some experts say that might not be such a big tragedy for a politician who has always given her best performance from the outside of Ukraine's establishment.

"Tymoshenko overdramatizes this struggle, as if it were the final battle between good and evil," says Oleksandr Sushko, research director for the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, an independent Kiev think tank.

"It would be better to see this as just another election and remain calm about the result," he says. "In this case it's obvious what Tymoshenko needs to do: Go back to the political drawing board and return to opposition."

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