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Analysis & Opinion
08.02.10 The Closest Of Calls
By Roland Oliphant

Last night’s exit polls told a consistent story – Viktor Yanukovich seemed to have won a narrow but clear victory of between three and five percent of the vote. But as the actual votes were counted, the real gap turned out to be much smaller – at the time of writing, Yanukovich has only a less than three percent lead. That is a narrow enough margin of error for Yulia Tymoshenko to challenge the results in court, but the public seems to not be in the mood for street protests in favor of either candidate.

KIEV, Ukraine/ It looked like a done deal. By 9 p.m. last night, just an hour after the polls closed, the results of Ukraine’s five rival exit polls had given a surprisingly unanimous message: Party of Regions Leader Viktor Yanukovich led by anything from 6.24 percent (according to a poll by the Research and Branding Group) to 3.1 percent (according to Savik Shuster Studio). Even The National Exit Poll by the Democratic Initiative Foundation, the most trusted by Western observers and in the words of Tymoshenko herself, “the only real exit-poll,” gave Yanukovich a 3.2 percent lead.

Even those sympathetic to Tymoshenko seemed resigned to a Yanukovich victory. “The most dignified thing to do would be for her to concede and congratulate the winner,” said one foreign election observer, who privately said that he thinks Tymoshenko would be the better choice of leader. “Unfortunately, this is Ukraine, and that’s not her style,” he added.

He was right. While Yanukovich last night claimed a victory, thanking “all voters, regardless of who they voted for,” and praising Tymoshenko in the magnanimous way only a winner can (though also calling on her to resign as prime minister), Tymoshenko refused to throw in the towel. Instead she insisted the exit polls were close enough to leave her a chance of victory, and called on her supporters to “fight for every vote” in the count. Her team said they would conduct a “parallel count,” which at one point last night had the candidates neck and neck on 46 percent of the vote each.

A vote count by a partisan team may not carry much weight with anyone, but her stubbornness has still paid-off. Mid-morning on Monday, the Central Election Commission said that with 95.4 percent of votes counted, Yanukovich’s lead was down to 2.09 percent, narrower than any of the exit polls predicted. That will give Tymoshenko stronger grounds to challenge the results. Meanwhile, the supporters of Yanukovich gathered outside the building of the Central Election Commission to proclaim victory.

By mid-afternoon, Yanukovich’s lead was down to some 2.7 percent (he was on 48.4 percent, Tymoshenko on 45.9 percent, according to RIA Novosti) – about the same margin by which he “won” the 2004 election before the Orange Revolution overturned it. But any hopes in Tymoshenko’s camp of replicating that success would be misplaced; there seems little appetite for a repeat of the street protests of 2004 to 2005 amongst the public, and away from the Electoral Commission building the mood in Kiev is one of business as usual. Independence Square, the center of the Orange Revolution, is empty except for television crews waiting for protestors who have not arrived.

Pro-Yanukovich commentators have declared the result incontestable – Maxim Shevchenko, an outspoken presenter on Russia’s Channel One, told journalists at a press conference today that he wanted “to congratulate the Party of Regions on its victory, even if its political enemies refuse to recognize it.” But the truth is that narrowness of the result means that Yanukovich cannot take his victory for granted yet.

Even if the sides can’t get many people onto the streets, there will still be ten days to a week of rhetorical warfare, at the center of which will be accusations of falsification. Tymoshenko’s team has already accused the Party of Regions of restricting its access to polling stations in the Donetsk Region, Yanukovich’s heartland. Meanwhile Sergei Markov, a United Russia party Deputy in the Russian State Duma who is observing the election, pointed out that the discrepancy between the exit polls and the actual count suggested that this time around, Tymoshenko’s team had been up to something fishy.

And there are some genuine concerns. A short-notice change in the electoral law that scrapped the quorum of observers required to make a vote-count legal, which out-going president Viktor Yushchenko signed into law just days before the vote, may not have “opened the way for falsifications,” as the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc claimed it would, but it certainly caused unnecessary confusion and looked suspicious.

But despite this and other worries, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observers have endorsed the vote, calling it an “impressive display of democratic elections” that met “most OSCE and Council of Europe commitments.” “The professional, transparent and honest voting and counting should serve as a solid foundation for a peaceful transition of power,” said the organization in a press release.

That effectively endorses Yanukovich’s lead, however slim, and will make it more difficult for Tymoshenko to challenge the results in court. And it chimes with the mood on the streets of Kiev. “There won’t be any falsification this time,” said Anton, a taxi driver, on polling day. “Yanukovich’s team understands that they can win without it, and Tymoshenko understands that if she’s caught cheating, it would be the end of her career.” He himself was unimpressed by either candidate – he said he was one of the five percent who voted “against all.”

The Central Election Commission has ten days to announce the final count under Ukrainian law, and the head of the commission told RIA Novosti today that he was “confident’ of meeting the February 17 deadline. In the meantime, the battle for the presidency will be continued by other means. But with both the Ukrainian public and the international community skeptical about “falsifications,” Tymoshenko is very much on the back foot.
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