KIEV, UKRAINE — Even before the polls closed Sunday in Ukraine’s bitterly fought presidential election, supporters of Yulia Tymoshenko were warning that the vote was once again being stolen by her old antagonist from the 2004 Orange Revolution, Viktor Yanukovich.
The streets of the capital, Kiev, were quiet Sunday night, but both sides were predicting turbulence as the official vote counting proceeds and fraud allegations trickle in. Ukrainian news agencies report that 70,000 extra riot troops have been brought into Kiev to maintain order.
“Even if Yanukovich wins, he won’t be a legitimate president because these elections were not fair and honest,” says Pavlo Movchan, a parliamentary deputy for Ms. Tymoshenko’s party.
Initial exit polls, published immediately after the voting, show Mr. Yanukovich between three and six percentage points ahead.
Just under 70 percent of Ukraine’s 37 million voters cast ballots, news reports said.
The highly regarded National Exit Poll, which was funded by Western embassies, said Yanukovich garnered 48.7 percent of the votes against Tymoshenko’s 45.5 percent.
The comeback kid
If his lead holds up in vote counting over the next 24 hours, Yanukovich might be on his way to finally taking power, some five years after being accused of rigging the 2004 presidential election and sent packing by the Orange Revolution.
The mood at Yanukovich’s headquarters was unreservedly jubilant.
“This means an absolute victory for Viktor Yanukovich,” Yanukovich aide Anna German told journalists. “That leaves Tymoshenko with no chance. … She will get nothing in the courts.”
Tymoshenko’s team complained Sunday that pro-Yanukovich forces were buying votes and engaging in multiple voting in his stronghold of eastern Ukraine. They also complained that one of their poll managers was “murdered” Sunday morning, and a safe full of ballot papers stolen.
They also suggested they might challenge the election’s validity in the courts, because of a law passed last week that changed rules for how the country’s 33,000 polling stations certify their vote counts.
“Because of that law, many regions of Ukraine were completely closed to public control,” over the vote counting, says Viktor Nebozhenko, director of the Ukrainian Barometer, an independent Kiev think tank. “Democracy has lost in Ukraine.”
“The result of the majority of exit polls are within the margin of statistical error,” he told journalists “Conclusions about who the victor is can be made only on the basis of the real results of the Central Election Commission.”
Ukraine’s politics have been stormy since the three weeks of rolling street demonstrations in 2004 that overturned Yanukovich’s allegedly fraud-tainted win and led to the election of Viktor Yushchenko in a fresh election.
The incumbent Mr. Yushchenko, who was knocked out in the election’s first round with a humiliating 5.4 percent of the votes, told journalists Sunday that the choice between Yanukovich and his Orange rival Tymoshenko was a “shame.”
“I think Ukrainians will be ashamed for their choice, but this is democracy,” Yushchenko said.
Around Kiev on Sunday, voting was peaceful and orderly, and a random sample of those casting ballots suggested that most had little enthusiasm for either candidate.
“There is no real choice here,” said Alexander Isakov, who voted with his wife at a downtown polling station. “What we’ve learned over the past few years is that elections don’t solve anything.”
Irina Trushenko, a painter, said she wished there was somebody “new” to vote for. “But if Yanukovich comes to power, it will be the end of democracy in Ukraine. He has to be stopped,” she said.
But Ivan Svinarenko, a service worker, said “nobody believes in Yulia [Tymoshenko] anymore…. I’m voting for Yanukovich because he’s the lesser of two evils.”
Most experts say the mood in Ukraine is sour on all politicians. And exit polls bear that out, showing about 5 percent of Ukrainians exercising their option to vote “against all” — the highest such result in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history.
This may indicate that there is little possibility that crowds will come out to protest alleged fraud — as they did in 2004 — if either of the candidates call for street demonstrations.
“We know there was fraud, but it was probably on both sides,” says Volodymyr Gorbach, an expert with the independent Institute of Euro-Atlantic Integration in Kiev. “It’s going to be a tense few days, and it’s too early to make any firm predictions.”