KIEV, Ukraine – Opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko relaunched his presidential campaign with a massive but relatively somber rally Saturday evening after failing to win a deal in Ukraine’s parliament to strengthen guarantees against fraud in the hard-won repeat runoff.
Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, meanwhile, announced through an aide that he will stand in the rematch with Yushchenko despite believing that the Supreme Court erred in ruling his disputed Nov. 21 runoff victory invalid a day earlier.
“The prime minister thinks that the court decision was made under great political pressure, and the constitution was violated,” said the prime minister’s press secretary, Anna Herman. But she quoted Yanukovych as saying, “There is nothing left for me to do than to run in the election and win it.”
Foreign observers and domestic critics charged after the first runoff that absentee voting rules had been abused, along with other tricks such as manipulated voter registration lists, to inflate the vote tally of the pro-Moscow Yanukovych and hold down the total of the pro-West Yushchenko.
The opposition has demanded new anti-fraud rules and a change in membership of the Central Election Commission, which on Saturday formally set Dec. 26 for the revote. If a rematch between Yushchenko and Yanukovych were to be held without those changes, the door could be opened to a repeat of opposition charges that the vote was rigged and Yushchenko was robbed of victory.
Speaking to tens of thousands of supporters gathered in central Kiev’s Independence Square for a 13th consecutive evening rally, Yushchenko warned that “there are very cynical and difficult negotiations going on behind our backs” aiming to delay or disrupt the revote. He called for international organizations to send large-scale observer missions to guard against fraud.
“Despite Christmas, the international community must ensure strong observers’ presence,” he said. “That will be the day that will determine Ukraine’s fate for decades and centuries ahead.”
Yushchenko defended his decision not to go along with the demand of other parliamentary factions Saturday that passage of fresh guarantees against vote fraud be linked with constitutional reforms transferring many of the president’s powers to the prime minister. Had Yushchenko agreed to that deal, his path to the presidency would appear much more clear, but the power he would then exercise would be severely limited.
“They realized that they aren’t going to win, so they decided to make constitutional changes to revise presidential powers,” Yushchenko told supporters in the square.
In parliament, Yushchenko found himself in a day of bitter argument with new political allies, including the parliamentary speaker, Volodymyr Lytvyn, and Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz. They wanted the various reforms to be passed as a single package. But Yushchenko and his core supporters demanded that any vote on constitutional reform be delayed until after the Dec. 26 balloting.
“Combining electoral changes and constitutional reform is legally illiterate,” said lawmaker Yulia Tymoshenko, a key Yushchenko ally. “We must first create legal conditions for holding elections. No one in the world passes constitutional changes in a rush.”
Yushchenko’s parliamentary critics charged him with reneging on an agreement to link the measures. He and Tymoshenko denied that charge.
While still hoping for the changes in electoral law that it has demanded, the Yushchenko camp appeared to believe that even without fresh legal guarantees it could mobilize enough support to come out on top in the revote. Yushchenko said that in recent days 160,000 forms had been distributed to demonstrators to establish a database of campaign activists that would be used to organize volunteers for local election commissions and observer spots. More forms were being handed out Saturday evening.
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