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Will Ukraine's east sway election?

Yulia Tymoshenko must improve her standing in Dnipropetrovsk to beat Viktor Yanukovych.

A woman stands next to a calendar with a portrait of presidential candidate and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (and yes, a tiger) in Kiev Feb. 4, 2010. (Konstantin Chernichkin/Reuters)

UPDATE: Exit polls from Ukraine indicate that the pro-Moscow opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych has narrowly won the country's presidential election.

DNIPROPETROVSK, Ukraine — If Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is to triumph in the second and final round of Ukraine’s presidential elections on Sunday, she must convince more people here in her hometown to vote for her. 

Tymoshenko finished in a distant third place with only 15 percent of the vote in the Dnipropetrovsk region, an eastern industrial center where she was born 49 years ago. Viktor Yanukovych, 59, the party boss and former mechanic who hails from next-door rival Donetsk, won the region with 41.5 percent. Sergey Tigipko, the businessman who stormed to a surprising third place finish nationally, took 21.5 percent. 

A day before the runoff, very little is clear about this eastern European country’s vote: whether it will be clean of vote-rigging, what the post-election period will produce, or even what the candidates’ actual political platforms are. Most crucially, no one has a clear idea who will win. 

Tymoshenko is trailing in the polls, but she is a woman of mythic tenacity — one of her campaign posters compares her to a white tiger. Sixty percent of the country’s 37 million registered voters cast ballots for rival candidates, or for no one at all. Supporters of Tigipko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the next-place finisher, may end up cleaving to regional lines in Sunday’s voting — in the first round, voters in the country’s east and south overwhelmingly backed Yanukovych, while the center and west opted for Tymoshenko. Or they might favor the candidate of business-as-usual and stability (Yanukovych) over the one who represents intelligence and professionalism but also alarming demagoguery (Tymoshenko). Or they could outright refuse to vote. 

If the election is close, observers expect that the loser will more than likely challenge the outcome. These last three weeks before the second round have witnessed vicious jockeying between the two camps for an advantage once the ballots have been cast. First, Parliament, led by Yanukovych’s Party of Regions (POR), dismissed Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko, a key Tymoshenko ally and a man who could either aid or inhibit (depending on your political position) any voting fraud that might occur. Tymoshenko apparently reinstated him through a technicality, however. 

On Thursday, POR again forced through a last-minute law amending the composition of the local election commissions. Yanukovych said that the change was necessary in order to block planned falsification by Tymoshenko’s camp. Tymoshenko for her part said that the opposite was true: Her opponent was planning widespread ballot-stuffing. She threatened to call her supporters to the streets in a repeat of the 2004 Orange Revolution, where similar accusations of violations ultimately led to Yanukovych’s humiliating defeat. 

“If Yanukovych wants an honest fight, we’re ready to compete,” she told a press conference. “If he wants fraud, then we’re ready to give him resistance he’s never seen before, even in 2004.” 

Ukrainians, after a debilitating economic crisis and five years of bickering between Tymoshenko and President Viktor Yushchenko, her one-time Orange Revolution ally, are disheartened, angry and cynical. Calls to defend democracy against falsification — real or purported — may fall on deaf ears. 

But for Tymoshenko to credibly challenge the election results, the contest must first at least be close. A Yanukovych blowout would suck the air from her campaign. And cities like Dnipropetrovsk will play a major role in her success or failure.