Ukraine Supreme Court rules election results invalid and calls for new vote on Dec. 26

Friday, December 3rd 2004, 6:24 am
By: News On 6

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) _ The Supreme Court declared the results of Ukraine's disputed presidential run-off election invalid Friday and ordered a new run-off be held on Dec. 26, sparking a burst of cheers and fireworks from tens of thousands of opposition supporters rejoicing in Kiev's main square.

The ruling, made after five days of hearings by the court's 21 justices, was a major victory for opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, who had rejected the government's demands that an entirely new election be held.

And it was a stinging blow to outgoing President Leonid Kuchma and his powerful ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who wants to preserve Moscow's centuries-old influence in Ukraine in the face of Yushchenko's followers' desire to move closer to the West. Only a day earlier, Putin had sharply derided the idea of holding a new run-off.

The opposition had pinned its hopes on the court's ruling in its bid to overturn the results of the Nov. 21 run-off vote, in which Kuchma ally Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych was declared the winner. The opposition said the vote was rigged to cheat Yushchenko of victory.

``Today Ukraine has turned to justice, democracy and freedom,'' Yushchenko told the throng of supporters who have packed the capital's Independence Square for 12 days. ``It happened thanks to you.''

``The Supreme Court has put a big final stop to the new election that Kuchma wanted,'' said Yushchenko, wearing an orange scarf, his campaign color. He urged Kuchma to fire Yanukovych and his Cabinet and demanded a reshuffle of the Central Election Commission, which he said ``betrayed'' the nation by endorsing the fraudulent vote.

Yushchenko waved his clasped hands over his head like a victorious prizefighter, and the crowd, fluttering orange banners and blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags, burst out with the national anthem, with Yushchenko joining in putting his hand over his heart as he sang along.

Kuchma had been pressing for an entirely new election instead of a new run-off, apparently in hopes of replacing Yanukovych with a stronger candidate to run against the opposition leader.

In Washington, the State Department welcomed the court ruling. ``We certainly agree with the decision ... that the last round was marked by significant fraud and that it therefore can't be upheld as a fair result,'' spokesman Richard Boucher said.

``What is important now is to move ahead quickly ... to ensure a new vote that is fair, free and that results in an outcome that reflects the will of the Ukrainian people,'' he said.

The spiraling political crisis has undermined Kuchma's hopes to ensure he is succeeded by a supporter, has paralyzed his government with protests and has raised fears of a split in Ukraine between its more pro-Russian east and its western regions, where many want to move closer to the rest of Europe.

In eastern Ukraine, Yanukovych's backers expressed anger at the decision. ``WE have a president: Viktor Yanukovych,'' said Konstantin Sadalsky, shaking his fist at a TV screen in an Internet cafe in the city of Donetsk.

The ruling is final and can't be appealed, and both sides have promised to abide by the decision. There was no immediate reaction from Yanukovych or his supporters. Representatives from Yanukovych and the Central Election Commission left the courthouse before the judges announced their decision.

The court ruling said a new run-off vote should be held nationwide on Dec. 26. Inside the courthouse, Yushchenko's lawyers were jubilant.

``This is a great victory of all people who have been standing at the square, a great victory for Ukrainian democracy,'' said Mykola Katerinchuk, the Yushchenko lawyer who wrote the appeal.

Fireworks crackled in Independence Square when the decision was announced, and the sprawling crowd broke into jubilation, dancing and waving orange flags. Passing cars blasted their horns three times to sound out the three syllables in ``Yush-chen-ko.''

``This is the only decision we have been waiting for,'' said Anatoly, a 56-year-old engineer who was among the sea of people filling Independence Square, where protester danced and swayed in unison to rock music.

Throughout the day, more protesters came into the city in convoys and crowded the tent city at the square to witness what they hoped would be a dramatic judicial ruling against the government. The decision came after dark, more than six hours after the judges retired to deliberate.

Protesters also maintained their blockade of the Cabinet building and the presidential administration, which has prevented government workers from going to their jobs.

Parliament scheduled a marathon all-weekend session to pass legislation corresponding to the Supreme Court verdict. It will need to pass changes to the membership of the 15-member Central Election Commission and in election law to help prevent fraud.

Parliament, filled with opposition supporters while many government delegates stay away, has been chipping away at Kuchma's authority. On Friday, it passed a non-binding resolution calling for the withdrawal of the country's 1,600 peacekeepers out of Iraq _ a symbolic snub of Kuchma, who ordered the deployment. Earlier, parliament brought down Yanukovych's government with a no-confidence vote.

The crisis has also strained relations between Russia, which has staunchly backed Yanukovych, and the West, which has refused to accept the official results of the vote.

Putin immediately congratulated Yanukovyck on victory after the Nov. 21 run-off, and Kuchma made a hastily arranged visit to Moscow on Thursday for support from Putin as the opposition appeared to be gaining momentum.

Putin denounced the idea of holding a new run-off vote and said the West should not meddle in the crisis.

President Bush, asked about Russia's stance on Thursday, said any new election ``ought to be free from any foreign influence.''

Before the court's ruling, Poland's president, who has served as mediator in Ukraine's political crisis, warned that the country should hold a new vote quickly or else violence could break out.

``Every day of demonstrations, every day of tension makes the situation more difficult because it is difficult to control,'' President Aleksander Kwasniewski told Polish state radio. ``A spontaneous outbreak is indeed possible and this is the greatest threat in the current situation.''

Protesters may try to ``take things in their hands and take control of the public offices,'' which would lead to ``police action,'' he said.