Wed, Dec 22, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Ukraine candidates face off in TV debate

ELECTION CAMPAIGN Viktor Yushchenko went on the attack, while his opponent was more conciliatory. Neither mentioned the opposition leader's poisoning

AP , KIEV, UKRAINE

Shoppers listen to Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko's speech during the pre-election TV debate between the two presidential candidates in Kiev on Monday. The next round of Ukrainian presidential elections will take place on Sunday.

PHOTO: EPA

Ukraine's rival presidential candidates traded accusations in a charged televised debate that saw opposition leader Viktor Yush-chenko accusing his opponent of stealing millions of votes in last month's runoff, and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych urging whoever loses the court-ordered rerun to accept defeat.

The two faced off on Monday just days ahead of the Dec. 26 vote, lashing out at each other, but also shaking hands and exchanging grins when the 100-minute confrontation ended.

Yanukovych tried to be more conciliatory, urging Yushchenko to pledge not to contest the official results.

"If you win, I will recognize [your victory], if I win -- you will," Yanukovych said. "And then, you and I, are working to form a normal government of national accord."

Yushchenko, wearing a tie and handkerchief in his orange campaign color, charged Yanukovych with fraud in the Nov. 21 vote that was later annulled by the Supreme Court.

"You're a religious person, right? Thou shalt not steal ... And then you stole three million votes," Yushchenko said.

The electoral campaign has been marked by tension following massive street protests and revelations that Yushchenko was poisoned by dioxin in September. During the debate, however, neither candidate mentioned the poisoning that disfigured Yushchenko's face, which was covered with heavy makeup.

Yushchenko was more aggressive during the encounter, pointing his finger at his rival and clenching his fists. At times, he slashed his hand through the air and expressed incredulity toward his opponent.

Yanukovych appeared more defensive, standing up straight and occasionally shifting his weight like a wrestler. He spoke in Russian instead of Ukrainian in his introductory remarks, appealing to his core support base in Ukraine's Russian-speaking, industrial east. Yanukovych suggested a Yushchenko victory would endanger the country's unity.

"If you win the vote you will only be the president of part of Ukraine," he told his rival. "I am not struggling for power -- I am struggling against bloodshed."

The bitter campaign has split the country, with the west and Ukraine's cosmopolitan capital backing the Western-leaning reformist Yushchenko, while Yanukovych has received strong support from the Kremlin.

"We have to discuss how to unite Ukraine and not divide it," said Yanukovych.

Debate rules allowed the two to question each other directly after their opening statements. Yushchenko used his first question to quiz his opponent about what he described as Yanukovych's economic policy mistakes.

Yanukovych defended his record, recalling a recent one-time increase in pensions, and promised he would increase benefits to retirees again.

Yushchenko's questions focused on economic matters, pensions, the budget and salaries, while Yanukovych emphasized voting and changes in election law.

Ukrainians gathered to watch the debate in cafes and bars in the capital Kiev, but many lacked enthusiasm, saying the debates would ultimately mean little.

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