Ukraine’s pro-Western Orange Revolution allies made a strong combined showing in Sunday’s parliamentary elections and looked poised to win a majority that could allow them to unseat Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, an exit poll showed.
The election was called early in an attempt to end a standoff between Yanukovych and President Viktor Yushchenko and shake sense into the ex-Soviet nation’s politics after years of infighting.
The independent poll showed Yanukovych’s bloc was the top vote-getter with 35.5 percent, but Yulia Tymoshenko, the fiery Orange Revolution heroine, followed closely with 31.5 percent. Yushchenko’s party was trailing a distant third with 13.4 percent.
Yushchenko and Tymoshenko struck a last-minute alliance last week to form a coalition in the 450-seat parliament. The exit poll results suggest that they would be able to muster the majority that would allow them to unseat Yanukovych, who draws his support from Ukraine’s Russia-speaking east and south. It was conducted by a team of Ukraine’s three leading polling agencies and had a margin of error of 2 percentage points. Other exit polls had similar results.
The vote — the fourth in three years — will either boost Ukraine’s hopes to integrate more closely into Europe or throw it into more turmoil.
While forging a coalition with Tymoshenko could take weeks of bargaining, and Yanukovych would not give up power easily, Yushchenko dismissed concerns about tensions worsening after the vote.
“There will be emotions, but these will be just episodes. I’m sure that the political community will find mutual understanding,” Yushchenko said.
Tymoshenko’s message was the same: “I’m convinced that these elections will end the crisis.”
Ukraine’s political fortunes seemed firmly determined after hundreds of thousands of protesters paved the way for Yushchenko’s victory in the Orange Revolution protests against Yanukovych’s fraud-tinged win in the 2004 presidential vote.
But the Orange camp plunged into an infighting shortly after the victory with Yushchenko firing Tymoshenko as prime minister after only seven months on the job. And the party of Yanukovych, a 57-year-old former metal worker, made a stunning comeback in the March 2006 parliamentary elections, propelling him back into the premiership.
Yanukovych sought to change his image, casting himself as a democrat and preaching compromise and stability. He eased his affiliation with Russia and underlined his push for Ukraine’s integration into Europe.
Meeting later with observers from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, he offered assurances that Ukraine’s foreign policy would not change.
“Ukraine will continue to serve as a reliable bridge between East and West. Ukraine’s European perspective remains unchanged,” Yanukovych said.
Unlike the 2004 vote when the Kremlin backed Yanukovych, Russia is staying away from the parliamentary election.
Yanukovych resisted Yushchenko’s April decision to dissolve parliament and call new elections after the president accused him of seeking to usurp power. Yanukovych grudgingly agreed to Sunday’s vote, but has hinted he would accept only one outcome: his victory.
Yanukovych has accused Yushchenko and Tymoshenko’s parties of preparing widespread falsifications, and warned he could organize protests similar to those during the Orange Revolution. He said that his party would not accept an “unlawful” outcome.
“If the Orange try to steal our victory, we will be able to defend it,” said Andriy Zhigalov, a 50-year old bookkeeper who cast his ballot for Yanukovych’s party at a Kiev polling station.
In the Orange camp, Yushchenko, 53, has struggled with disillusionment and a loss of support among many voters now backing Tymoshenko, the telegenic Orange Revolution heroine known here simply as Yulia.
Tymoshenko, 46, who wears a flaxen braid wrapped on her head, had parted ways with Yushchenko after he fired her in 2005. Their two parties then lost a chance to form a coalition following last year’s parliamentary elections, sowing even further disillusionment among liberal voters.
“I’m sure that Yushchenko and Yulia won’t repeat their mistakes. I want to live in Europe, and only the Orange forces can take us there,” said Oleg Kileiko, a 46-year old businessman who voted for the president’s bloc.