KIEV, Ukraine – Thousands of demonstrators who’d blockaded government buildings here to protest alleged electoral fraud celebrated in the streets Wednesday after Parliament approved changes intended to ensure a free and fair presidential runoff vote Dec. 26.
Opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko told his supporters to prepare for the election, which will pit him against Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych again.
“During these 17 days we have built a new country,” Yushchenko told thousands of demonstrators camped out in Independence Square. “We have realized that we are a European nation.”
Yanukovych, who’d been declared the victor of the flawed Nov. 21 runoff, told supporters in southeastern Ukraine that Parliament’s move was a “silent coup.”
“Clearly, lawlessness continues in the capital,” he said. “These laws were dictated by the mobs in the streets.”
Parliament’s actions were aimed at two practices that election observers said contributed perhaps as many as 3 million fraudulent votes in the runoff: absentee voting and voting from home.
International observers filmed Yanukovych supporters in the southeast section of the country voting multiple times, and there are claims that as many as a third of the votes for Yanukovych were cast from home.
The new laws limit home-voting to people who are homebound, and greatly restrict the number of absentee votes allowed in each precinct.
The revisions, however, came only after Yushchenko’s supporters in Parliament agreed to a change in Ukraine’s constitution that transfers some presidential powers to Parliament.
Yushchenko had denounced the change, but apparently agreed to a compromise that would put it off until after parliamentary elections in 2006, when his backers hope to win a majority.
U.S. and European officials praised the Parliament’s actions.
“Ukrainian and Russian authorities are hearing a clear message from North America and Europe, in diplomatic stereo, and that stereo sound makes a difference,” Secretary of State Colin Powell said in Brussels, Belgium. “And what do we say? Let the people decide.”
The European Union’s foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, said in a statement that the vote should “pave the way for a free and fair rerun.”
There was no immediate comment from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has backed Yanukovych.
There was debate among Ukrainians about whether the new laws go far enough to ensure a fair vote.
“This is a serious challenge to those who wish to falsify the vote,” political analyst Volodymyr Tsybulko said.
“The new actions are a strong signal to the elites that the law now rules our elections, and the will of the people will be honored.”
But Yulia Tyshchenko, the program director at the Center for Independent Political Research, said the revisions weren’t perfect.
“Limiting voting outside your home polling place eliminates a great deal of abuse, but it also violates the rights of many honest voters,” she said.
In Independence Square, it was clear that demonstrators believed they’d won an enormous victory, and many were packing up and heading home early today for the first time in days.