A pro-Russia party appeared headed to win the largest chunk of votes in Ukraine’s parliamentary elections Sunday, nationwide exit polls indicated, dealing a stinging rebuke to President Viktor Yushchenko’s West-leaning administration.
Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Moscow opposition leader who lost to Yushchenko in the 2004 presidential election forced by the Orange Revolution street protests, declared his party the winner on Sunday — long before official results were available.
“The Party of the Regions has won a convincing victory,” Yanukovych said after three exit polls put his party in a comfortable first place. “We are ready to undertake responsibility for forming the Cabinet and we are calling on everyone to join us.”
With nearly 9 percent of the vote counted on Monday, the Party of the Regions had just under 25 percent — 1 percentage point more than Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s party. Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine bloc trailed in third with just under 17 percent. The early official results are not considered a fair reflection because of the small percentage.
Yushchenko’s job not at risk
The three exit polls gave Yanukovych’s party anywhere from 27.5 percent to 31 percent, followed by Tymoshenko’s bloc with about 23 percent, and Our Ukraine with between 14 percent and 16 percent.
Yushchenko’s job was not at stake, but the vote was the first since constitutional reforms trimmed presidential powers and gave broader authority to parliament, including the right to name the prime minister and much of the Cabinet.
A victory by Yanukovych’s party could potentially give him say over those choices, although he would not have the majority needed to act without parliamentary allies.
There were also indications Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, the flamboyant heroine of the Orange Revolution’s protests, might be willing to try to patch over their differences so they could form a governing coalition. But many analysts were skeptical that would happen.
Yushchenko also seemed to hint he might even consider working with Yanukovych.
Polling stations shut after 15 hours, but voters who had waited in long lines and managed to get inside before the official closing time were allowed to cast ballots, choosing from more than 45 parties that sought seats in the 450-member parliament.
Yushchenko pledges continuity
The president’s party has suffered from disillusionment over a sharp economic slowdown and the infighting among former Orange revolution allies. But Yushchenko insisted before voting ended that no matter how his party did, the election was still a victory because it was the most democratic election ever held in Ukraine.
“I feel great. It’s the kind of feeling you have before a victory,” said Yushchenko, who wore an orange tie and stood beside his Chicago-born wife, Kathy, as he voted at Kiev’s Independence Square. “Democratic elections always mean victory.”
Yushchenko, who as president retains the right to set Ukraine’s foreign policy and appoint the foreign and defense ministers, pledged the nation would continue on its Westward path.
“The vote results will have no impact whatsoever on Ukraine’s foreign policy course,” he told reporters.
Yanukovych, who enjoys broad support in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking industrialized east and has ties to its powerful tycoons, advocates improved ties with Moscow and a halt to Ukraine’s efforts to join NATO.
Ukraine’s Central Election Commission said early Monday that the extremely long ballots were delaying the vote count, and complete preliminary results were not expected until Tuesday.
Once the votes are counted, the political parties face tough negotiations on forming a governing coalition.
Yushchenko’s and Tymoshenko’s parties could together end up with more votes than Yanukovych’s bloc, but the two had a bitter falling out when the president abruptly fired her as prime minister in September.
Yushchenko’s chief of staff, Oleh Rybachuk, said the president stood ready for talks with all parties that win parliament seats.
For some, 'Yulia is our last hope'
Ihor Prikordonny, a 68-year-old retiree, said he voted for Yushchenko’s party but was against the president’s striking an alliance with Yanukovych.
“Yanukovych has discredited himself and lacks education and culture,” he said.
Tymoshenko portrays herself as a victim of ruthless and corrupt clans, a martyr’s image that along with her prowess in public speaking helped her retain strong public support in the nation of 47 million people.
“Yulia is our last hope,” Iryna Petrova, a 64-year-old retiree, said after voting for Tymoshenko’s bloc in Kiev.
Russia, still reeling from the humiliating defeat it suffered in the 2004 presidential election when a court annulled Yanukovych’s fraud-tainted victory and ordered a repeat vote, avoided direct meddling in the campaign. But it worked actively behind the scenes.
In what was widely interpreted as an attempt to pressure Yushchenko, Russia forced Ukraine to pay double for its natural gas imports at the start of the year after a dispute that led to a brief shutdown in gas shipments.
The United States also turned its attention on Ukraine. In recent weeks, Washington adopted legislation ending Cold War-era trade restrictions on Ukraine and signed on agreement on Ukraine’s potential membership in the World Trade Organization.