Ukraine on crossroads in decisive election

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KIEV, Sept 30 (Reuters) After months of political turmoil Ukraine elects a new parliament today, choosing between ''Orange Revolution'' advocates backing President Viktor Yushchenko and his rival, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich.

His powers reduced since 2004 mass protests when orange-clad supporters swept him to office, Yushchenko dissolved parliament and called the election after accusing his rival of making an illegal power grab.

He has rejoined forces for the poll with the heroine of the street protests, Yulia Tymoshenko. No clear single winner is expected to emerge and long coalition talks are certain.

Polling stations will open from 7 am (0400 GMT) to 10 pm (1900 GMT), with exit polls made public immediately. Official results become available from tomorrow morning.

In an address on the eve of the poll, Yushchenko said voters faced a choice between Ukraine's future and a dubious past.

''Either you vote for changes in your lives or you vote to bring back the past and those who have divided us and infected the very body of our nation,'' he told television viewers.

Ukrainians were ''capable of distinguishing between truth and lies...Enough chaos, stagnation and imitation reforms. We need deep, fundamental change that everyone can feel.'' The president defeated Yanukovich in the aftermath of the 2004 protests and appointed Tymoshenko to head an ''orange'' government committed to moving Ukraine closer to Europe.

But that government was brought down by infighting and Yanukvoich rebounded, taking over as prime minister after his Regions Party came first in a parliamentary poll last year.

This campaign, marked by accusations and name-calling, produced few new ideas. Any notion of orientation to the West or Russia, a key issue in 2004, was overshadowed by calls to lift living standards of voters earning a monthly average of 260 dollars.

The premier's Regions Party, its power base in the industrial Russian-speaking east, leads surveys with 30 per cent support. His communist allies are also likely to win seats.

Right behind is the combined score of ''orange'' groups - Tymoshenko's bloc and the pro-presidential Our Ukraine party.

Both score well in the nationalist west, Kiev and central Ukraine.

But with voters heading to polling stations for the third time in as many years - and divisions rending the ''orange'' camp since the heady days of 2004 -- many are now disillusioned.

Looking fitter than ever since being poisoned with dioxin in 2004, the president this week embraced Tymoshenko, sacked as prime minister of his first government. That made it plain she could again become premier if voters back an ''orange'' majority.

With 20 groups on the ballot, none of the other parties appears likely to clear the three percent barrier to win seats.

A large contingent of monitors are overseeing the vote amid allegations by each side that the other is plotting to cheat.

Reuters MP VP0527

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