Exit polls show Ukraine president winning 2nd term

58% vote for Kuchma taken as repudiation of return to communism

November 15, 1999|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian voters repudiated a return to the communist past yesterday, propelling pro-democratic President Leonid Kuchma toward a second five-year term over Communist challenger Petro Symonenko, according to exit polls.

Voter surveys from Ukraine's third presidential election since the Soviet Union disintegrated eight years ago showed the 61-year-old president with more than 58 percent of the vote, compared with 36 percent for Symonenko, Ukraine's Communist Party leader. Final results weren't expected until today.

The election was watched closely by the United States and other Western nations, which have a stake in Ukraine's continued democratic independence and hope to nurture it into a robust trading partner and ally. It is the third-largest recipient of U.S. aid, behind Israel and Egypt.

Strategically located between Russia and Eastern Europe, Ukraine is the second-largest country to emerge from the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In his election campaign, Kuchma repeatedly reminded voters of the Soviet-era atrocities inflicted on Ukraine, including purges, imprisonment and a famine that killed more than 5 million people during the early 1930s.

Seen by many as a precursor to next year's presidential elections in Russia, the race was billed as a referendum on whether to continue Ukraine's erratic transition to democracy or return to communism under the updated Leninist ideology of Symonenko and his Communist Party.

Kuchma, a former missile plant director, has styled himself as a democratic reformer. But since he took office in 1994, Ukraine has been engulfed in widespread corruption and economic stagnation. As many as 80 percent of Ukraine's 52 million citizens live in poverty.

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