By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 27, 2006
KIEV, Ukraine, March 26 -- Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko's party finished in a humiliating third place in parliamentary elections on Sunday as the pro-Russian party of the man he defeated for the presidency 15 months ago appeared headed for a clear victory, according to exit polls.
The Party of Regions, led by Viktor Yanukovych, who was defeated by Yushchenko in 2004 following massive street protests dubbed the Orange Revolution, secured a commanding 33.3 percent of the vote, according to one exit poll. A second poll gave the Party of Regions 27.5 percent.
"Our victory will open a new page in the history of Ukraine," Yanukovych said Sunday night. "We are ready to work together with any political party."
Official preliminary results are not expected until Monday.
Weeks of haggling over the composition of a new coalition government is now likely, but with Yanukovych, a Kremlin favorite, at the helm, Ukraine's strategic direction will probably shift from the West and back toward Moscow.
Yanukovych has criticized Yushchenko's stated desire to join NATO and declared himself open to the revival of economic union among Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
"Ukraine will never join NATO," Taras Chornovil, the No. 4 figure on the Party of Regions list, said in an interview Sunday night. In Ukraine, voters choose a party list, not individual candidates, and the party decides which of its members on the list enter parliament.
Chornovil said current strains in the relationship between Ukraine and Russia were "absolutely artificial" and created by Yushchenko's policies. He added that the Party of Regions would seek to repair rifts with Russia that climaxed this year in a fight over the price of natural gas.
The party of Yushchenko's former ally, Yulia Tymoshenko, who had a bitter falling-out with the president last year, came in second with 22.7 percent of the vote, according to one poll. A second national poll gave her party, known as Bloc Yulia Tymoshenko, 21.6 percent.
Yushchenko dismissed Tymoshenko as prime minister last September after mutual accusations of corruption and mismanagement.
Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party received 13.5 percent, according to one poll, an unambiguous verdict on his break with Tymoshenko and his stewardship of the country over the last year, when economic growth fell off dramatically. A second poll gave Our Ukraine 15.5 percent.
Out of the 45 parties in the elections, six or seven are expected to surpass the 3 percent threshold necessary to enter the 450-seat parliament. Two or three of those, including the Communists, are natural coalition partners for Yanukovych's bloc.
"Tomorrow we start consultations with political forces that made up the coalition that was victorious in the Orange Revolution," Yushchenko said after casting his ballot in central Kiev.
The final division of seats, however, may allow Yanukovych to sideline the parties of both Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, even if they reconcile.
Tymoshenko said Sunday night there was still a possibility she could form a government with Yushchenko's party and the Socialists. But she said on Ukrainian television that if she did not become prime minister again, something Yushchenko had hoped to avoid, then "he will have Yanukovych as prime minister."
Chornovil described the Party of Regions as dramatically different from the one that existed little more than a year ago when Yanukovych was accused of rigging the presidential election. Yanukovych was initially declared the winner in that vote, but the Ukrainian Supreme Court overturned the result, saying it was fraudulent. The court ordered another vote, which Yushchenko won.
"Fifty thousand people left the party -- careerists and all of those for whom prison was crying out," Chornovil said. "And we have 500,000 new members."
Chornovil and other members of the Party of Regions acknowledged that the vote was clean and also reluctantly conceded that the now vibrant state of Ukrainian democracy was one positive legacy of the Orange Revolution.
Voters faced a bewildering and unwieldy choice Sunday. Besides the 45 parties running for parliament, voters in Kiev, for instance, grappled with ballots for district councils that listed 59 parties and ballots for city council that listed 53. Thirty-seven candidates were on the ballot in the Kiev mayoral race, among them Vitaliy Klychko, a former heavyweight boxing champion, who was running second, according to exit polls.
Some of the ballots were more than three feet long.
"It's a nightmare," Svetlana Honcharenko, 46, said after voting in Kiev. "There are so many parties, it's almost funny."