KIEV, Ukraine – Ukraine's two presidential candidates faced off Monday in a televised debate less than a week before a rerun of their disputed election, with opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko (search) accusing his rival of trying to steal the Nov. 21 runoff vote.
As they traded accusations amid a campaign filled with tension and fears of unrest, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych (search) appeared to call for a government of national unity and tried to be more reconciliatory throughout the debate.
"Whoever wins, I think, we should hold a forum of national accord," Yanukovych said, 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 concord."
The debate was marked by several sharp exchanges, including finger-pointing, but both shook hands when it ended, maintaining a controlled tone for most of the 100-minute session.
The clash between the contenders in the Dec. 26 rerun of the vote is the first since the Supreme Court annulled the Nov. 21 runoff and came amid tensions fueled by massive street protests and revelations that Yushchenko was poisoned by dioxin (search) in September.
The two rivals stood at lecterns facing each other in a blue television studio, with an electronic clock behind a moderator. A small table was between them, with a desktop flag of Ukraine sitting on it.
Yushchenko, wearing a tie and a handkerchief in his campaign color of orange, spoke first. He said the reason for the Dec. 26 election rerun "was that the results of the Nov. 21 votes were stolen ... by my opponent and his team."
Yanukovych, wearing a tie in his trademark blue, spoke in Russian instead of Ukrainian in his introductory remarks.
"Your accusations toward me and toward my voters don't give us the chance to look into the future optimistically," he said, wagging his finger at Yushchenko.
Yanukovych suggested that a Yushchenko victory would further divide the nation.
"Today, Viktor Andreyevich, we have to discuss how to unite Ukraine and not divide it," Yanukovych said, addressing Yushchenko by using his first name and patronymic.
"If you win the vote you will only be the president of part of Ukraine," Yanukovych added. "I am not struggling for power — I am struggling against bloodshed."
Rules for the debate allowed the two candidates to ask each other questions directly after first giving their opening statements.
Yushchenko, referring to his background in economics, used his first question to quiz his opponent about the "nature of your mistakes."
Yanukovych defended his record, recalling a recent one-time increase in pensions and promised that he would again raise benefits to retirees. He later tried to focus on campaign financing, hinting that his rival received funding from abroad.
Yushchenko, showing his hands, said: "These hands have never taken anything."
Yushchenko's questions focused on pocketbook matters and the budget, while Yanukovych emphasized voting and changes in election law. Yushchenko posed his questions in an accusing manner, and when it was his turn to answer, he wagged his finger and clenched his fists, lecturing his rival.
Yanukovych, meanwhile, mixed reconciliatory statements with criticism. At one point, he appealed to Yushchenko's courage, saying: "Be a man."
Both candidates were exceeding the time limits allowed for questions and answers, prompting warnings from the moderator.
There were lighter moments. Yushchenko said Yanukovych had called his opponents "goats" and "orange rats."
Yanukovych replied: "If I said an offensive, emotional word — I ask that I be forgiven."
Ukrainians crammed into cafes and restaurants to watch their first debate Nov. 15, and even more were expected to tune in Monday.
The two candidates prepared in markedly different styles, Ukraine's daily Segodnya reported. Yushchenko read books about economics and history, while Yanukovych visited Kiev's Orthodox Monastery of Caves where he prayed, the paper said.
Tensions continue to spiral in Ukraine as the two candidates warned of potential provocations leading up to the Dec. 26 vote. Yushchenko's assertion that Ukrainian security officials tried to poison him at a dinner — and scientists' determination that a highly toxic dioxin was used — has further roiled the campaign.
His face has been badly disfigured and he has undergone treatment at an Austrian hospital.
Meanwhile, an opposition convoy — dubbed the "friendship journey" — is traveling around this divided nation of 48 million trying to sow support for Yushchenko in mostly Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions where Yanukovych draws most of his backing.
Some 50 cars — carrying mostly artists and musicians and draped with Yushchenko's orange campaign colors — visited the industrial city of Zaporizhia on Monday and was heading for the city of Dnipropetrovsk, said Olga Khodovanets, a convoy coordinator.
In Kiev, a convoy of fewer than a dozen cars sporting Yanukovych's blue-and-white banners drove through the streets. Nearby marched a small group of elderly Ukrainians holding icons and pro-Yanukovych flags.
Late Sunday, assailants hurled a firebomb at Yushchenko's campaign office in the city of Mariupil in the Donetsk region, a statement posted on his party Web site said. There were no injuries, but the office was seriously damaged in an ensuing fire.