March 26, 2006

Rivals humiliate Ukraine’s Yushchenko in poll

By Yuri Kulikov

KIEV (Reuters) - Ukraine's pro-Western President Viktor
Yushchenko faced humiliation on Sunday when a Russian- backed
rival and an estranged ally from the "Orange Revolution" looked
set to crush his liberal party in parliamentary polls.

But Yulia Tymoshenko, the ally he sacked as prime minister
in September, said shortly after polls closed that an accord on
forming a coalition of "orange" liberal parties was
"practically ready." She implied she would expect to return as

Yushchenko had been braced for his Our Ukraine party taking
second place in the poll behind the Regions Party of Viktor
Yanukovich, his old Moscow-backed adversary whom he defeated in
a presidential election after mass protests in December 2004.

But, while that proved correct, a worse, unexpected setback
for him came when Tymoshenko stole second place in exit polls,
leaving Yushchenko's party trailing a poor third.

Though his own job as president was not at risk, the
surprise outcome, projected by two exit polls, effectively made
the 45-year-old charismatic Tymoshenko standard-bearer of the
'orange' liberals.

"Two versions are realistically possible -- either a
failure to form a government and a dissolution of parliament or
a government headed by Tymoshenko," said Hleb Vyshlynsky, of
Gfk-USM Ukraine consultancy.

An exit poll conducted by three Ukrainian institutions gave
Yanukovich's Regions party 33.3 per cent of the vote, the
Tymoshenko bloc 22.7 and the pro-presidential party 13.5.

A second exit poll gave roughly the same picture, putting
the Regions Party at 27.5 percent, the Tymoshenko bloc at 21.6
and Our Ukraine on 15.5 percent.

Tymoshenko, a persuasive orator whose trademark is a blonde
peasant hair braid, was Yushchenko's close comrade in the heady
protests of 2004 that turfed out the pro-Moscow establishment.

The protests were triggered by Yanukovich's victory in a
polls many charged was rigged. A repeat poll saw Yushchenko's


Yusahchenko and Tymoshenko have been on poor terms since he
sacked her after infighting in 'orange' ranks over corruption
allegations and differences of opinion over the direction of
the economy.

For months, she has been blaming the president's entourage
for splits in the 'orange' ranks and had clearly been heeded by
large swathes of the liberal vote.

Long weeks of talks will probably now be needed to piece
together a coalition able to command a majority in parliament
which, under new constitutional rules, is empowered to choose
the prime minister.

Disillusionment over splits in the "orange" team and a
economic slowdown had clearly contributed to the big score for
Yanukovich, who commands strong support among Russian speakers
in industrial eastern Ukraine.

Yushchenko made no immediate comment after the polls.

Patching up with Tymoshenko might come at a high price. She
would like her job of premier back, a difficult step given her
interventionist views and Yushchenko's free market values.

Another possible, though not likely, configuration would
bring Yanukovich together with two fringe parties one exit poll
said cleared the 3 percent barrier into the assembly -- the
Communists and the far-left Vitrenko bloc.

At stake is the fate of a country of 47 million, whose
"Orange" leaders have been unable to deliver on promises after
prising Ukraine loose from centuries of Russian domination and
setting it on a course for joining the European mainstream.

Though Ukrainians now enjoy total freedom of expression,
monthly wages stand at only $150. Prices fluctuate erratically.

A maddening bureaucracy remains as does systematic
corruption. Western investors are wary of uncertain stability.

Yushchenko is also weakened by constitutional reform that
has trimmed his powers and extended those of parliament.

Ties with Russia remain unsteady. A New Year deal pushed
gas prices sharply higher, ending a confrontation which briefly
cut supplies to Ukraine -- and Moscow's European customers.