KIEV, Ukraine — Ukrainians began voting Sunday in an early parliamentary election meant to bring an end to a months-long political standoff between the nation’s two feuding leaders.
President Viktor Yushchenko’s party appeared set for a dismal showing in the vote, with polls predicting the bloc led by rival Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych would get the largest share of votes.
But Yushchenko is pinning his hopes on a last-minute alliance with former Premier Yulia Tymoshenko – a partnership that could give their parties control of parliament if together they get more votes than Yanukovych’s bloc.
Forging a coalition with Tymoshenko, however, could mean weeks of negotiation and Yanukovych has signaled that he would not give up power easily.
Voting began at 7 a.m. (0400GMT) and ends at 10 p.m. (1900GMT). Ukraine has 37.5 million registered voters.
Polls predict Yanukovych’s Party of Regions will receive the most votes, with Bloc Yulia Tymoshenko in second place. Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine-People’s Self-defense, hampered by voter disappointment with his failure to fulfill reformist promises that brought him to power in 2005, is expected to wind up third.
Yanukovych, an earthy 57-year-old former metal worker, has undergone a dramatic transformation since his humiliating defeat in the 2004 presidential race, when Ukrainians took to the streets in massive protests against election fraud dubbed the Orange Revolution, paving the way for Yushchenko’s victory in a court-ordered rerun.
But Yanukovych made a stunning comeback in the March 2006 parliamentary elections when his party won the most votes, propelling him back into premiership. He sought to change his image, casting himself as a democrat and preaching compromise and stability.
Yanukovych, who draws his support from Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east and south, fiercely 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 the Sunday vote, but has hinted he would accept only one outcome: his victory.
He has accused Yushchenko and Tymoshenko’s parties of preparing widespread falsifications, and warned he could organize protests similar to those during the Orange Revolution. His supporters warned they would erect a giant stage and tent camp on the same central Kiev square that was the epicenter of the protests three years ago.
Raisa Bohatyryova, a leading member of Yanukovych’s party, said Friday that if it judges the vote fraudulent, Ukraine could end up with dueling parliaments and Cabinets and a campaign for early presidential elections.
In the Orange camp, Yushchenko, 53, has struggled with voter disillusionment and a loss of support among many voters now backing Tymoshenko, the telegenic Orange Revolution heroine known here simply as Yulia.