KIEV, Ukraine - Outgoing President Leonid D. Kuchma endorsed a proposal yesterday for new balloting to resolve the country's political crisis, further undermining Prime Minister Viktor F. Yanukovych's bid for recognition as president-elect.
In a day that saw rapid erosion of Yanukovych's claim to power, the Supreme Court heard opposition arguments charging fraud in the Nov. 21 presidential runoff election.
By official count, the prime minister narrowly defeated opposition leader Viktor A. Yushchenko, but his inauguration is on hold while the court considers the challenge. Observers say it could be several days before the court issues a ruling.
Supporters of the pro-Western Yushchenko, who claims to be the legitimate winner, continued to mount massive demonstrations in Kiev. Television networks that until a few days ago overwhelmingly supported the prime minister broadcast the proceedings live, allowing the allegations to reach parts of the country that normally hear little but pro-government news.
Yielding political ground, Yanukovych said he could accept a revote in two eastern regions where critics say his vote count was inflated by fraud, including widespread abuse of absentee ballots.
"If there is proof of cheating, that something illegal occurred there and if there is no doubt among experts, I will agree with such a decision," he said.
Foreign observers have charged that the absentee vote system allowed Yanukovych supporters to travel by bus to cast multiple ballots in many districts - and that some small voting places recorded up to 50 percent more ballots than locally registered voters.
The Central Election Commission said Yanukovych won 49.5 percent to 46.6 percent, a margin of 871,402 votes.
Focus on south, east
In the court hearing, Yushchenko's legal team focused on eight southern and eastern regions that accounted for 15.35 million votes. The court gave Yanukovych's legal team until today to respond to the allegations of fraud.
In addition to allegations that Yanukovych's campaign inflated absentee ballots, the Yuschenko camp alleges that the prime minister sought to secure a victory through intimidation of election officials and observers, inaccurate voting lists that included dead people and excluded opposition supporters, coercion of students and public sector workers, and the destruction of some pro-Yushchenko ballots.
Speaking to tens of thousands of supporters in Kiev's central Independence Square last night, Yushchenko said that at a meeting of parliament scheduled for today, opposition deputies would seek to oust Yanukovych from his prime ministerial post.
"The government has lost control over the political, financial and economic processes in Ukraine, so we will propose the resignation of Yanukovych's government," he said.
The incumbent president and the two presidential candidates are pushing different proposals for a new election.
Yushchenko has called for a December repeat of the presidential runoff vote, but not the entire electoral process, which began with a field of 24 candidates in a first round of voting Oct. 31.
Yanukovych has reluctantly said there could be a revote in certain regions. That seemed calculated to avoid an even worse outcome for him: a potential Supreme Court ruling completely invalidating the vote in those areas, which could throw the Nov. 21 election to Yushchenko and make him president. Observers consider such a result unlikely.
Kuchma, on the other hand, appeared to favor an entirely new election, which would open the door to new candidates in an initial vote about three months from now, followed by another runoff if no one received more than 50 percent of the vote.
"If we really want to preserve peace and cooperation in Ukraine and build a democratic society based on the rule of law ... let us hold a new election," said Kuchma, who insisted that he would not be a candidate. "This is the only more or less legal way."
Kuchma's reference to a "more or less" legal solution reflected how the dispute has already moved onto murky legal ground.
Observers say that a peaceful solution would likely require a Supreme Court ruling that settles the current vote count and the status of the Nov. 21 election. Parliamentary action might also be needed to set up rules for a repeat of the runoff or an entire new election. Any new election would have to get at least Kuchma's approval.
A nation torn apart
Yanukovych has received Moscow's backing during the campaign and in the post-election dispute. Exposing divisions between Ukraine's largely Russian-speaking east and Ukrainian-speaking west, the election is likely to determine whether this nation of 48 million moves closer to Russia - or to Western Europe and the United States.
Some analysts said the nation could be torn apart after eastern politicians called Sunday for referendums on regional autonomy.
Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this article. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.