Ukrainians return to polls

MOSCOW – After a flawed presidential runoff election, massive but peaceful demonstrations, a supreme court decision that threw out the vote results and revelations that the opposition candidate had been poisoned, Ukrainians return to the polls today for what may be the decisive act in this political drama.

Viktor Yushchenko, the opposition candidate, will again face Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who was declared the winner in voting on Nov. 21, a runoff that international observers said was marred by widespread fraud. In what came to be known as the “Orange Revolution,” drawing its name from the campaign color of the opposition, hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets, demanding that the vote be tossed aside and rerun.

The tenure of whoever now wins – opinion polls put Yushchenko comfortably in the lead – will likely be tempered by the sudden rise of a popular movement, and divisions in the country that the election brought to the surface.

“Ukrainians have surprised themselves, and whatever happens I don’t think we can ever go back to the old days of governing by an elite for that elite,” Volodymyr Polokhalo, editor of the Political Thought journal, said in a recent interview. “People have found a democratic voice, and it’s not under any one person’s control.”

According to a public opinion poll by the Kiev-based Razumkov Center for Economic and Political Studies, 53.3 percent of respondents support Yushchenko, and 41.7 percent back Yanukovych. The survey had a margin of error of 2.3 points.

Even President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who found himself in a standoff with the United States and the European Union over his support for Yanukovych, now speaks as if Yushchenko will win. And Yanukovych has complained bitterly about his former allies, including incumbent President Leonid Kuchma, whom he said abandoned him in the face of demonstrations and international pressure.

The harsh rhetoric and uncertainties about the electoral process have continued into the last days of the campaign.

On Saturday, the Constitutional Court overturned part of a new law that restricted at-home voting by people with disabilities, a mechanism that monitors had said was a source of fraud in the previous round of voting.

Yushchenko, who doctors determined was poisoned in September with dioxin, leaving him disfigured, warned the government against instigating violence.

“I think it will be a colossal mistake on the part of the current regime if even one drop of blood is shed in the coming days,” he said at a news conference Friday.

Thousands of international observers, including hundreds of Ukrainian expatriates who received hurried training, have streamed into the country to monitor the election.

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