KIEV, Ukraine -- Supporters of Viktor Yanukovich, the front-runner in Ukraine’s hotly contested presidential election, on Thursday voted in parliament to oust the country’s top law enforcement officer, in an escalating struggle to control state institutions that could influence the outcome of the poll.
Should the February 7 runoff between Mr Yanukovich and his rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, the prime minister, fail to produce a clear winner, control of the courts, law enforcement and the central election office could be decisive.“Without a doubt, the escalating political struggle underway suggests that both sides expect the election to be very close, and so they are seeking leverage to influence a final outcome,” said Oleksandr Chernenko, head of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, the main election watchdog.On Thursday, Yuriy Lutsenko, an ally of Ms Tymoshenko was ousted as interior minister by MPs in Mr Yanukovich’s opposition Regions Party supported by allies including the Communists and some lawmakers from Our Ukraine, the party of president Viktor Yushchenko.Minutes later, Ms Tymoshenko exploited a technicality to keep Mr Lutsenko in de facto control, appointing him the ministry’s first deputy head. She said the attempted dismissal of Mr Lutsenko, was meant to prevent law enforcement agencies from cracking down on vote-rigging probably planned by Mr Yanukovich.Mr Yanukovich lost the disputed 2004 presidential election that led to the Orange Revolution after his campaign was accused of widespread electoral fraud. Ms Tymoshenko, who co-led the revolution with Mr Yushchenko, now accuses her opponents of trying to steal an election again.But Mr Yanukovich’s backers claim that it is she who is plotting fraud and insist their leader has no reason to cheat, after having secured a 10 per cent lead over her in a first round election held on January 17.Both sides have clashed this week for control over a court that is to rule on election fraud complaints if the result is disputed, as well as a printing house that is producing election ballots.Law enforcement troops on Monday stormed into the printing house after a group of lawmakers backing Mr Yanukovich forcefully seized it. Allies of both candidates have accused each other of conspiring to print extra election ballots, allegedly for ballot stuffing.On Wednesday, lawmakers backing Mr Yanukovich criticised a judge from Kiev High Administrative Court of Appeals, which would consider a disputed election result. On Thursday, Mr Yanukovich’s camp filed a draft law in parliament to replace the judge.More than 3,000 foreign election monitors present for the first round vote, in which 16 other candidates were eliminated, called it generally democratic. Foreign observers will again be out in force in the run-off.Mr Chernenko said “it’s looking almost certain that results of the run-off will be challenged, and will be clouded amidst a sea of voter fraud allegations.”While such a scenario resembles the Orange Revolution, voter fatigue amongst most of Ukraine’s 46 million citizens is widespread and huge protests are not expected. Any dispute is more likely to be followed by court claims and counter claims leading, possibly, to a recount or a political compromise, Chernenko said.