Ukraine Court Orders New Run off Election

KIEV (AP)–The Supreme Court declared the results of Ukraine’s disputed presidential run-off election invalid on Friday and ruled that the run-off should be repeated on Dec. 26–bringing cheers and fireworks from tens of thousands of opposition supporters massed in Kiev’s main square.

The ruling–made after five days of hearings by the court’s 18 justices–was a major victory for opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko–who had rejected the government’s deman’s that an entirely new election be held.

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 Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych was declared the winner. The opposition said the vote was rigged to cheat Yushchenko of victory.

The ruling was a stinging blow to outgoing President Leonid Kuchma and powerful ally–Russian President Vladimir Putin–who a day earlier had sharply derided the idea of holding a new run-off.

Kuchma had been pressing for an entirely new election–apparently in hopes of replacing his favorite Yanukovych with a stronger candidate. The spiraling political crisis has undermined his 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 east–where support of Kuchma and traditional ties with Russia are strong–and its west–where many want to move closer to the rest of Europe.

The ruling is final and cannot 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.

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.

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.

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