Leonid Kuchma won a second five-year term as president of Ukraine by presenting himself as the centrist candidate most likely to push this former Soviet republic toward market reforms and integration with the West.
The Central Elections Commission said this morning that with 97 percent of the votes counted, Kuchma had 56 percent, compared with almost 38 percent for his Communist challenger, Petro Symonenko.
Kuchma had portrayed his opponent, who heads the Communist Party in parliament, as an unreconstructed apparatchik who would stifle economic reforms and bring this country of 50 million people back under the dominance of Moscow through a new union with Russia.
The elections commission reported voter turnout in Sunday's runoff at 74 percent. The two candidates emerged from a field of 14 candidates in a first round of voting two weeks ago, but neither secured over 50 percent of that vote, forcing them into the second round.
Kuchma, 61, has been criticized by Western organizations for controlling the local broadcast media with a heavy hand, blacking out coverage of his opponents, and using state institutions to back his candidacy in violation of the constitution. Symonenko said on Sunday that the result was rigged.
"If we had objective elections, I am 100 percent sure that we would win," Symonenko, 47, told reporters as he voted in central Kiev. "Unfortunately, today we have another situation."
Western monitors said there were isolated incidents of electoral fraud but overall the vote appeared relatively clean. They plan to issue preliminary reports today.
In the past two weeks, Symonenko, hoping to quiet fears about his party's program and capitalize on disaffection with Kuchma because of the country's deep economic problems, had gravitated toward the political center in an effort to broaden the Communist Party's solid but narrow base. In the first round of balloting, Symonenko garnered 22 percent of the vote, compared with Kuchma's 36 percent.
To broaden his appeal, Symonenko said that he supported state control of only strategic industries and that he would allow small and medium-size businesses to flourish. He also backed away from earlier calls for a political union with Russia and Belarus and said instead that he supports "maintaining good relations between sovereign nations possessing similar technologies, language and culture."
In the end, Symonenko appeared unable to overcome voters' fears that his presidency could lead to the country's isolation from the West just as it is demanding clear signals from Europe on issues such as whether Ukraine can be a candidate for membership in the European Union.
Still, Kuchma was seen by many as only the better choice between two deeply flawed candidates.
"I voted for Kuchma," said Tatiana Horbacheva in the village of Osikovo, 30 miles east of Kiev, where the unreformed collective farm is rotting and pensions are routinely unpaid. "But nothing is going to change."
"We need a structure so that the economy can work normally, like in civilized countries," said Aleksander Zhivago, a police officer in the village. "Of course we need a free market. The Soviet way didn't work, that's clear for anyone to see."
Reform remains a huge task. The economy has contracted 25 percent under Kuchma, foreign investment is anemic compared to neighboring countries such as Poland and Hungary, and corruption has flourished, with Kuchma cronies allegedly enriching themselves through the privatization of state enterprises.
Even defeated first-round candidates who endorsed Kuchma, such as Yehven Marchuk, former head of the Ukrainian equivalent of the KGB, did so halfheartedly. Marchuk said his decision to back Kuchma was "not an easy choice" but he could not "allow the Communists back to power."
Kuchma said his first priority is to muster a parliamentary majority to push through a package of economic reforms to jump-start the economy and begin to exploit the country's rich agricultural base, industrial infrastructure and technically adept population.
"If parliament remains inefficient, then no reforms can be put in place," Kuchma said Sunday.
Reforms are essential if only because Ukraine faces $3.1 billion in foreign debt repayments in the next 12 months, and its principal creditor, the International Monetary Fund, has demanded a series of legislative reforms, including the creation of a open privatization process, before extending further credits to the country.
CAPTION: Woman in the Ukrainian village of Lichanka votes in election that yielded a second five-year term for centrist candidate Leonid Kuchma.