European lawmakers issued scathing criticism of Ukraine's electoral system Thursday as they began a mission to observe a January presidential vote, saying the election will likely be marred by corruption, media bias and widespread public disappointment.
The election is being closely watched by Europe and the U.S. Five years after the Orange Revolution street protests helped propel a pro-Western leader to power over a Russian-backed rival, the front-runners — Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych — appear likely to focus on reinvigorating troubled ties with Moscow.
Matyas Eorsi of Hungary, who is leading the observer mission from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, or PACE, told a news conference the election is not expected to meet the organization's standards.
Eorsi suggested democratic practices could be swept aside by the bitter rivalries among prominent candidates, who also include incumbent President Viktor Yushchenko.
"We are worried that political cynicism will be on the rise. We understand that here in Ukraine, the political struggle is widely regarded as a struggle of personalities, ambitions and financial interests rather than a competition of political ideals," he said.
Eorsi added that corruption and the media's role are serious concerns. "The media, many of the media, are also under strong financial influence, and very often this financial influence is created by the candidates," he said.
Tadeusz Iwinski of Poland, another PACE observer, said Ukrainian election laws lack transparency and urged politicians to heed the group's recommendations for reform. "The problem of electoral laws makes for a permanent challenge," he said.
A Central Election Commission spokesman, Konstantin Khivrenko, and a commission member, Mikhail Okhendovsky, declined to comment to The Associated Press on the observers' remarks.
The assessment, unusually pessimistic for observers speaking two months before the vote takes place, contrasted with comments from the head of the monitoring mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which also got under way Thursday with a news conference. Heidi Tagliavini said the OSCE mission, which will field more than 600 observers for the Jan. 17 vote, would reserve judgment until they have analyzed the situation.
"We have arrived here with no preconceived ideas or hidden agendas," Tagliavini said. "We will let the facts speak for themselves."
Claims of electoral fraud led to the Orange Revolution — massive protests that erupted after Yanukovych, who had open support from then-Russian President Vladimir Putin, was declared the winner of a 2004 presidential vote. The Supreme Court threw out the election and Yushchenko, who advocates NATO membership for the ex-Soviet republic, won a rerun.
After years of political gridlock and economic trouble, Yanukovych is leading in the opinion polls, followed by Tymoshenko — Yushchenko's ally in the Orange Revolution but now his foe.
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