KIEV, Ukraine, Dec. 3 -- The country's Supreme Court invalidated the disputed presidential runoff election on Friday, citing "systemic and massive" violations, and scheduled a repeat vote for Dec. 26. The decision represented a major victory for the opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko.
Thousands of Yushchenko supporters, adorned with orange ribbons and scarves, roared their approval on the streets of Kiev after the court concluded five days of deliberations. Yushchenko had said the election was stolen by government fraud, and that he will win a free and fair runoff.
Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, second from right, is given a traditional present, bread and salt, during a huge rally at Independence Square in Kiev, the capital.
(Oded Balilty -- AP)
Photo Gallery: The parliament passed electoral and constitutional reforms, leading to celebrations by members of the opposition.
Graphic: A look at the East-West split that seems to be dividing the country politically.
_____News From Ukraine_____
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Transcript: Andrew Kuchins, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Moscow Center discussed the ongoing standoff in Ukraine.
Transcript: Dr. Anders Aslund, director of the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, also discussed developments in the country.
"Freedom, freedom" and "Victory," shouted the demonstrators, who had maintained a vigil in frigid weather at Independence Square in central Kiev for 12 days.
"We passed a great test," Yushchenko told the crowd Friday evening. "Thanks to you," he said, "we have made the choice: From now on, Ukraine is a democratic country."
The court also said the government of President Leonid Kuchma "illegally meddled in the election process" during the Nov. 21 ballot.
"The conclusion of the court is that the rules of the electoral law were broken and the exact result of the voters' will across the territory of Ukraine cannot be ascertained," said Chief Justice Anatoly Yarema, who read the decision on behalf of the 21-member, red-robed panel.
Yushchenko, a former prime minister and central banker, based his presidential campaign on forging links between Ukraine and the European Union. His opponent, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, a former Soviet factory manager, pressed for tighter ties with Russia.
While the Supreme Court rejected Yushchenko's demand to be declared the outright winner, its decision went beyond the expectations of many legal observers by ordering a quick rerun of the vote. The decision was based on a law that calls for runoffs 21 days after first-round balloting. In effect, the court said the Nov. 21 runoff didn't happen, one analyst said. "Judicially, it doesn't exist," said Oleh Makarov, a lawyer in Kiev, the capital.
In the runoff, election exit polls showed Yushchenko with a strong lead, but the official count listed Yanukovych as the winner with 49.46 percent of the vote to 46.61 percent for Yushchenko. International election monitors rejected the ballot, citing many irregularities, mostly in areas where Yanukovych was strongest.
The court appeared to agree with the monitors. It criticized the government election commission, saying it had permitted multiple ballots by individual voters, illegal transport of ballots and ballot box stuffing. It also said candidates were not given media access as required by law.
Legal experts said Kuchma had no way to challenge the decision. "The decision is final and can't be appealed," said Sergiy Koziakov, head of a leading law firm.
Neither Kuchma nor Yanukovych -- who had been declared the official winner -- made public statements, and government television showed a movie while the court session was broadcast on another channel. The government had the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has declared his opposition to a repeat election.
The decision was a major blow to Kuchma, who had chosen not to run for another term. He has been president since 1994, three years after Ukrainian independence came with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Officials said Kuchma was closeted with government ministers when the court announced its decision. "He was silent" when word arrived, said Defense Minister Volodymyr Kuzmuk. Kuzmuk indicated that his ministry would accept the decision. "We want to be in a legal framework," he said.
The decision was also a challenge to Putin, who had campaigned for Yanukovych and congratulated him as the winner. During a quick meeting Thursday with Kuchma at a Moscow airport, Putin scorned the repeat runoff option as a ploy by opposition forces. Members of Putin's own electoral team, so-called "political technicians," served as advisers to Yanukovych.
But the Kremlin model -- controlling media outlets and using power and patronage to mold public opinion -- did not work in Ukraine. Yushchenko forces mounted a civic campaign, which they called the "orange revolution," evoking similar popular movements that overthrew disputed electoral counts in Georgia, Serbia and Bulgaria.
"We have a feeling of victory, but of an intermediate victory," said Andriy Parubin, who arranged logistics and oversaw the dispatch of many demonstrators to protest sites.
Yushchenko scheduled a celebration rally for Saturday night. "Don't go away. We will be together," he said. "Sober," he added, reissuing the ban on alcoholic beverages among demonstrators.
He appealed to Kuchma to comply with parliamentary votes this week to dismiss Yanukovych, his government and the Central Elections Commission. "In the most difficult times, Kuchma went to confer not with the people, but with outside forces," he said, referring to the Kuchma-Putin meeting on Thursday. The crowd chanted, "Shame" and "Down with Kuchma."
Nina Pikrotenko, a middle-aged Kiev shopkeeper, sat cautiously on the sidelines of the revelry. "I'm always afraid there will be one more detail to overcome," she said. "We are so sick and tired of injustice. We just want to live like other civilized people."
Thousands of others lined streets radiating from Independence Square, especially on the route that leads past government cabinet offices up to the parliament building. The demonstrators reveled in a victory that Yushchenko attributed to their willingness to brave the cold and keep vigil throughout the city.
"We won! We won!" declared Ihor Ostash, a member of parliament and Yushchenko's inner circle. "I think that this is a historic decision and one that shows that Ukraine can solve its own problems."