Ukrainians begin voting for a new parliament

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KIEV, Sep 30 (Reuters) Ukrainians, buffeted by months of political turmoil, began choosing a new parliament today in an election which President Viktor Yushchenko said gave them the choice between ''false stability and change''.

Yushchenko, swept to power in the 2004 ''Orange revolution'', has been locked in a power struggle with the man he defeated in that upheaval, the resurgent prime minister, Viktor Yanukovich.

The president has rejoined forces with Yulia Tymoshenko, the heroine of those protests in Kiev's Independence Square against presidential election fraud. Together they hope to unseat Yanukovich from government.

''The choice is between two alternatives -- false stability and change,'' the president said after voting in central Kiev with his wife and one of his five children. ''And I believe the nation will opt for change.'' He said the early election, Ukraine's third ballot in as many years, would put an end to confrontation and enable the country to concentrate on its economic development.

''I think there will be some emotion after the election, but this will be mere episodes. Society will achieve an understanding,'' he said. ''There will be no more demonstrating in the square.'' Yanukovich discounted any suggestions that disputes over the outcome of the vote could provoke more turmoil.

''I think there will be no more early elections in Ukraine,'' he said at a central Kiev polling station. Protests would take place, he said, only if there were ''legal excesses''.

The two men have been embroiled in a power struggle ever since Yanukovich became prime minister last year, bouncing back from defeat in the rerun of the rigged 2004 presidential vote.

COALITION TALKS AHEAD But no clear winner is expected in Sunday's poll, called by Yushchenko after he accused Yanukovich of an illegal power grab.

Long talks to form a coalition government are almost certain.

Major economic reforms and policy initiatives have stalled as the men bickered. Contradictory orders from the president and the government have created confusion, which has been compounded by hasty and ill-defined changes to presidential powers.

Yanukovich's government has, however, overseen strong economic growth -- 7.1 per cent last year. He says a vote for his Regions Party means stability and better standards of living for the 47 million Ukrainians who earn an average of 260 dollar a month.

Polling stations to elect the 450-member assembly opened at 0930 IST and close at 0030 IST. Exit polls will be made public immediately afterwards, with official results available from Monday morning.

The last opinion polls, dating from two weeks ago, showed Yanukovich and his Communist allies just ahead of the combined tally of the pro-presidential Our Ukraine and Tymoshenko's bloc.

Tymoshenko, whose fiery speeches inspired crowds in the 2004 mass protests, is almost certain to become prime minister if the Orange camp wins. She was Yushchenko's first premier in 2005, but he sacked her amid debilitating infighting in her team.

Yanukovich has not ruled out a ''grand coalition'' between his Regions Party and Our Ukraine. That scenario, favoured by several economic analysts, would shut Tymoshenko out of government.

More than 3,000 international observers are overseeing the vote, led by a 700-strong team from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

REUTERS SZ PM1427

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