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Ukraine election tainted by five missing ballots

I t is hard to tell whether Ukraine is suffering the

birth pangs of something resembling genuine

democracy or the death throes of any hopes for democratic governance.

Both sides in the recent and highly contested presidential election will need to be careful to avoid having the outcome decided by bullets rather than ballots.

In the official vote-count following the Nov. 21 runoff election, Viktor Yanukovych received 49.39 percent of the vote, while Viktor Yushchenko got 46.71 percent. Ukraine’s parliament declared the election invalid on Saturday, though the action was symbolic and has no legal standing.

Yanukovych is considered close to Russia, while Yushchenko is oriented more toward Europe and the West.

Because of its position as a crossroads between East and West and lack of geographical barriers to invading armies, Ukraine, while fiercely nationalistic, has been ruled by foreigners for most of the last 300 years, most recently by the old Soviet Union.

In just a few years, it is difficult to develop habits of moderation on all sides — the confidence that the winners will not repress the losers when they control the levers of power — that are essential to civil society and democratic governance.

In Ukraine, Yushchenko supporters are convinced that the election was rigged and turned out in hundreds of thousands to support him in rallies in the capital city of Kiev. Yushchenko even took the oath of office from supporters in the parliament. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has declared the election tainted.

Igor Jaramenko is a retired Fountain Valley, Calif., aerospace engineer who served as a volunteer election monitor — for the fourth time since 1999 — in the most recent Ukrainian election. He was posted to an air force base near Kiev and returned to Orange County, Calif., last week. “Most observers figured the military would support the pro-Russian candidate, but Yushchenko got 60.8 percent of the vote” at the air base, he said.

The only problem was five ballots that disappeared; that is, five fewer ballots were available for counting than voters who signed in. He conjectured they may have been used elsewhere, possibly in precincts where they would have made more of a difference in the outcome, or for duplication purposes, or that the voters forgot to put in the ballot box.

Jaramenko believes the election was tainted for those reasons and even more so the fact that observers weren’t allowed in certain regions. He believes the best course now is an honest recount, with independent observers able to observe every aspect and every region.

We agree.

Secretary Powell’s comments, however correct, could be interpreted as interference. But a panel of observers from a variety of countries with no stake in the outcome could increase confidence in the reliability of a recount.

If some confidence is not restored, violence is a distinct possibility. That would serve no one’s interest.