A ruling by Ukraine's constitutional court has cast a cloud over today's presidential election rerun, with supporters of the pro-Western opposition leader, Viktor Yushchenko, claiming that the government may try to disrupt voting.
The court yesterday struck down parts of a recently passed law governing voting procedures, saying restrictions on elderly or infirm people voting at home were a violation of their constitutional rights. According to Mr Yush-chenko's camp, the mobile polling stations used for such voters accounted for a large part of the fraud that caused the previous presidential election to be ruled invalid.
The Central Election Commission said it would implement the ruling, though it had less than 24 hours' notice. "We don't have another alternative," said the commission's chief, Yaroslav Davydovych. "The vote must be held."
Although Mr Yushchenko is widely expected to win today's election, he believes supporters of the government candidate, Viktor Yanukovich, will still do everything they can - including the possible use of violence - to try to wreck the poll. This, the opposition fears, could allow the government to declare the election flawed.
The opposition hopes that the biggest ever presence of international monitors at an election, estimated by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) in Europe at more than 12,000, will help prevent election fraud. Urdur Gunnarsdottir, speaking for the OSCE, said it would not be possible to assess the effect of the court's ruling until voting took place, but added that observers would be following the mobile polling stations. The first indication of the election result may come tonight; final results are not expected until Friday.
Last week Mr Yushchenko attracted huge crowds wherever he went, in sharp contrast to Mr Yanukovich, who managed to draw only 2,000 people in the capital on Friday. The most recent opinion polls forecast that Mr Yushchenko would get 53 per cent of the vote. Even Dmytro Ponomarchuk, a political analyst working for Mr Yanukovich, told The Independent on Sunday his campaign was heading for disaster.
Mr Ponomarchuk said he knew of "provocations" being prepared in Mr Yanukovich's political heartland in Ukraine's eastern regions, as well as other schemes to cause trouble in western and central Ukraine. "The main task of Prime Minister Yanukovich's team is to do everything possible to disrupt the election," he added.
Mr Yanukovich himself has said that thousands of his supporters will turn up in Kiev if he loses today's election. He has warned of "bloodshed", but claimed it would be started by opposition supporters.
Hryhoriy Omelchenko, deputy chairman of the parliamentary committee on organised crime and corruption, said he had evidence that some 1,000 people organised in "Yanukovich self-defence groups", possibly armed, "will try to provoke disorder, violence and even bloodshed" tonight and tomorrow if early results of the vote show their man is losing.
The outcome of today's election, many believe, will determine whether Ukraine entrenches a frail democracy and turns to the West, or remains influenced by Moscow.
Mr Yushchenko, an econo-mist and former head of the national bank, has promised political and economic reform, including an attack on corruption, establishing freedom of the media and overhauling the police and courts. He has pledged to review shady privatisation deals brokered by the administration of the outgoing President, Leonid Kuchma, which gave state enterprises, property and resources to the regime's cronies.
The election has strained relations between Moscow and the West, which has accused Russia's President Vladimir Putin of attempting to sway the poll in favour of Mr Yanukovich. But Mr Putin has now said he could work with the opposition candidate if he won the presidency.
© Copyright 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd