Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich looks to have achieved a remarkable comeback in Sunday's election as official results put him ahead of his bitter rival, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
AFP - Opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich was on course Sunday to win Ukraine's presidency, exit polls showed, after voters punished pro-Western politicians and paved the way for closer ties with Russia.
If confirmed, the results of the election would mark a startling comeback by the pro-Moscow Yanukovich, who lost a bid for the presidency in 2004 in the wake of the pro-Western Orange Revolution uprising.
The exit polls gave Yanukovich a lead of three to five percent over Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a champion of EU integration, in a tense run-off that had sparked warnings of post-election protests.
Yanukovich snared 48.7 percent of the vote compared to Tymoshenko's 45.5 percent, with 5.5 percent of votes going to "against all" on the ballot, according to the National Exit Poll by research centres in Kiev.
Another exit poll commissioned by Ukraine's ICTV television found that Yanukovich had 49.8 percent of the vote compared to Tymoshenko's 45.2 percent, with 5 percent going to "against all".
In an apparent victory speech at his campaign headquarters, Yanukovich said the election had opened a "new page" in the history of Ukraine and vowed to build a "successful and strong" state.
In a nod to the nation's stark geographical divisions, he said: "I will do everything to ensure that citizens of Ukraine -- irrespective of where in the country they live -- feel comfortable and calm in a stable country."
He also declared it was time for Tymoshenko to resign as prime minister.
Early results based on the count from 6.6 percent of polling stations showed Yanukovich with 53.0 percent of the vote and 41.9 percent for Tymoshenko, the Central Elections Commission said.
But after a heated campaign full of insults and allegations of dirty tricks, Tymoshenko insisted the exit polls had no bearing on the final results.
"The exit polls... are mere sociology," a defiant Tymoshenko told reporters, dramatically dressed in a cream-coloured outfit and with her trademark golden hair braid.
"So long as the last count is not made, it is impossible to talk about any kind of results."
Tymoshenko's right-hand man, Deputy Prime Minister Olexander Turchynov, spoke of "extensive falsifications."
Tymoshenko had previously vowed her supporters would protest on the streets if she detected fraud by her rival.
Yanukovich's campaign seemed ready to counter that threat, however, setting up dozens of tents and sending hundreds of supporters around key official buildings in Kiev.
A senior interior ministry official, Volodymyr Mayevski, said Yanukovich had made a request for a gathering of 50,000 people in Kiev.
The 2004 Orange Revolution, which saw people flood into the streets to protest a disputed election, raised hopes of a new future in the ex-Soviet republic of 46 million people located between the EU and Russia.
Yanukovich initially won the rigged election, but following the protests Ukraine's supreme court threw out his victory as fraudulent and ordered a repeat vote, which he lost to pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko.
Yushchenko, the hero of the Orange Revolution, was eliminated in first-round polls in January after he failed to realise dreams of bringing Ukraine into NATO and the European Union.
Voters were also frustrated at bickering between Yushchenko and his former Orange ally Tymoshenko as Ukraine was rocked by the economic crisis, its GDP plunging 15 percent in 2009, more than any other major European economy.
The telegenic Tymoshenko had sought votes by pledging to redouble efforts to bring Ukraine into the EU, though she also has warm ties with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and was seen as palatable to Moscow.
Yanukovich has profited from the economic crisis but is still ridiculed for his inarticulate speech, such as a campaign gaffe where he mixed up the words for "gene pool" and "genocide."
There remains controversy over his criminal record, which includes convictions for theft and assault in the Soviet era that were erased by the courts in 1978.
Tymoshenko also had brushes with the law in a gas smuggling case, where she was eventually cleared.
Turnout was heavy across the country at 69.4 percent, the Central Elections Commission said.
Date created : 2010-02-07