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Presidential poll goes to run-off vote

Ukraine's presidential poll will go to a run-off vote on Feb. 7 after opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich, with 36 percent of the vote, failed to secure a majority against Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Incumbent President Viktor Yushchenko is out.

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AFP - Ukraine on Monday braced for a tense presidential election run-off between two old rivals who favour close ties with Russia after voters rejected the pro-Western leader of the 2004 Orange Revolution.

Preliminary results showed dour pro-Moscow candidate Viktor Yanukovich had won Sunday's first round of voting, in a stunning turnaround for the politician blamed for organising poll rigging in 2004 that sparked the Orange uprising.

But having failed to muster a majority, Yanukovich will face the second place candidate, the glamorous Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, in a run-off on February 7.

In a stinging rebuke for the pro-West revolt some six years later, its leader and the country's incumbent President Viktor Yushchenko was eliminated in the first round with a miserable single digit result in the poll.

With votes from 78 percent of polling stations counted, Yanukovich had 36 percent of the vote and Tymoshenko 25 percent, the central election commission said.

Third place went to businessman Sergiy Tigipko, who polled 13 percent. His electorate will now prove crucial in determining the fate of the second round.

Yushchenko meanwhile languished on five percent, in fifth place behind youthful former parliament speaker Aresniy Yatseniuk who took fourth with seven percent.

While Tymoshenko must make up a serious deficit in the second round, analysts have said the image-conscious prime minister could reel in the difference if she mobilises anti-Yanukovich voters.

"If Tymoshenko is less than 10 percent behind then her chances of winning in the second round climb sharply," said analyst Igor Zhdanov of the Open Policy think tank.

Tymoshenko, famed for her peasant-style blond hair braid, was a leader of the Orange Revolution along with Yushchenko, but in recent years has played up her close ties to Russian strongman Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

And while Yanukovich has long been seen as a Kremlin favourite, he has sought to reinvent himself with the help of Western public relations strategists and present himself as a defender of Ukrainian interests.

"Yanukovich never distanced himself from the fraud of 2004," said Nico Lange of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Kiev. "But my impression is that the Yanukovich of 2010 is different to the Yanukovich of 2004."

The pair, who have been rivals for the last decade while occasionally even flirting with an alliance, both said they were certain of victory.

"Yanukovich, who represents criminal circles, has no chance" in the second round, said Tymoshenko at her post-election news conference, resplendent in a pure white costume.

Her opponent snapped back that Ukrainians had voted for change and said that Tymoshenko was "in despair".

The second round promises to be a gloves-off affair and analysts have warned of a high risk that the result will be taken to the courts, perhaps even sparking fresh street protests.

The bitter campaign has already seen the shady pasts of the candidates once again dredged up.

Yanukovich was jailed twice in the Soviet era for theft and assault, though the convictions were erased in the late 1970s. Tymoshenko herself was briefly detained in 2001 on smuggling charges that were later quashed.

The 2004 Orange Revolution swept Yushchenko to power in a re-run of the rigged poll and raised hopes of a new era free of Kremlin influence for the country of 46 million that would set a precedent for other ex-Soviet states.

Though Ukraine now boasts improved freedom of speech, steps to implement reform and end corruption were forgotten as government became paralysed in a bitter power struggle between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko.

As in previous votes, the election showed Ukraine to be a divided nation with the industrial and largely Russian-speaking east of the country backing Yanukovich and the Ukrainian-speaking west going for Tymoshenko.

Yanukovich polled a crushing 77 percent of the vote in his eastern regional stronghold of Donetsk but could manage a mere six percent in the Lviv region close to the Polish border, the results showed

 

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