Pro-Russia Yanukovich takes lead in Ukrainian elections

Ukraine faces a 7 February run-off vote between opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich and populist Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko after a presidential election produced no outright winner, early official results showed on Monday.

The election will define how Ukraine, a former Soviet republic of 46 million people, wedged between the European Union and Russia, handles relations with its powerful neighbours and may help unblock frozen IMF aid for its ailing economy. 

Yanukovich led with 38% of the vote and Tymoshenko had 24%, the Central Election Commission said after 25% of the ballots from Sunday's election had been counted. Counting was to continue through the night. 

With 60% of ballots counted, outgoing President Viktor Yushchenko has 4.97% of the votes, according to the Ukrainian press. 

Analysts expect Tymoshenko to pick up a higher proportion of second round votes from defeated candidates and say Yanukovich may struggle to extend his appeal beyond his support base in the Russian-speaking east of the country. 

Tymoshenko, 49, helped lead the pro-Western Orange Revolution against Yanukovich's rigged 2004 presidential election victory and is most popular in the European-leaning west of the country. 

As exit polls were coming out on Sunday, Tymoshenko hailed the result as proof that Yanukovich had no chance in the second round on 7 February and called for talks with eliminated candidates. 

"As of today I am ready for talks so that we can move forward with uniting the democratic forces," she told reporters. 

Knock-out strategy

Andrew Wilson, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the key survey was the one organised by the National Exit Poll Consortium which showed only a four-point gap between the two strongest candidates. 

"Yanukovich's strategy was to knock (Tymoshenko) out in round one with a big lead," he said. "Clearly that has not paid off by any means. Most of the other candidates look like breaking in her favour. He's not got the reserves left." 

Two candidates who came third and fourth, former central bank chief Sergey Tigipko and former parliament speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk, said they would not come out in support of any candidate in the second round. 

An aide to Tymoshenko, a populist who amassed a fortune in her years in the gas industry, said however that her camp hoped to meet Tigipko – who has so far scored 12 percent of the vote – in the next few days. 

Widespread disenchantment with politics and anger over a deep economic crisis marked the vote. 

Voters appear to have punished incumbent President Viktor Yushchenko, one of the architects of the Orange Revolution, for the country's recent political in-fighting. 

Both leading candidates have pledged to seek better relations with neigbouring energy supplier Russia, in part to avoid the spats of recent years which led to supply cut-offs affecting parts of Europe. 

Yanukovich has called for a strong, independent Ukraine following a neutral path and not joining NATO or any other bloc. He attacked Yushchenko for excessively confrontational policies towards Russia and says Ukraine's real enemy is poverty. 

His Party of the Regions is allied to the Kremlin's United Russia party but Yanukovich has been careful to avoid appearing as Moscow's stooge this time around. 

He was tarnished by a scandal in 2004, when he initially claimed victory in an election tainted by allegations of fraud and was subsequently swept aside by the Orange Revolution. 

Although Tymoshenko initially had stormy relations with Russia, she has tried to patch up her links to the Kremlin of late. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has described her as a person Moscow can do business with. 

(EURACTIV with Reuters.) 

"If these results reflect reality, then Tymoshenko has a very good chance of winning in the second round," said independent analyst Oleksander Dergachev. "Yanukovich received close to the maximum level of support and he never exceeded 40%. There is a high level of distrust of him," he added.

"The votes for [incumbent Viktor] Yushchenko and [former foreign minister and presidential candidate Arseniy] Yatsenyuk will go to Tymoshenko entirely," Dergachev explained.

"There were no surprises. The troika of leaders [who led the polls] had been predicted," said Mykhailo Pogrebyinskiy  of the Kiev Centre for Political and Conflict Studies

"But Tymoshenko, as before, managed to gain additional votes literally in the last days and hours. Opinion polls had shown a difference of 10%," he added.

"Yanukovich is the favourite in the second round, but without the advantage that had been previously expected. The intrigues continue," Pogrebyinskiy concluded.

Yuri Yakimenko, analyst at the Razumkov Centre, said: "The results showed that the main predictions were fulfilled and the unexpected did not happen. The gap between the candidates leaves a chance for each of them to win in the second round."

"The key poll is the Democratic Initiatives one, that shows a difference of about 4%," said Andrew Wilson, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

"Yanukovich's strategy was to knock her out in round one with a big lead. Clearly that has not paid off by any means. Most of the other candidates look like breaking in her favour. He's not got the reserves left," Wilson added.

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Ukraine held three elections from 2004 to 2007 and was about to hold another poll in 2008 before the president rescinded an order to dissolve the parliament. 

Viktor Yushchenko won office in 2004 after weeks of mass 'orange' protests against poll fraud, ushering in policies aimed at bringing Ukraine out of the shadow of giant neighbour Russia. 

Pro-Russian opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich was then initially declared the winner, but the result was overturned and Yushchenko won a re-run of the vote. 

Much of the infighting within the 'orange' camp has focused on antagonism between Yushchenko and his estranged ally from the revolution, Yulia Tymoshenko. 

Yushchenko first appointed Timoshenko as prime minister in 2005. He fired her several months later, saying economic growth had slowed under her rule. Yushchenko tried to make a deal with Yanukovych in August 2006 but then dissolved parliament, accusing the pro-Russian politician of trying to oust him. 

Tymoshenko returned as prime minister in December 2007, after her bloc and Yushchenko's party won a combined 228 seats in the 450-seat parliament. 

Tymoshenko has repeatedly called on the president to quit. EU leaders have many times expressed bitterness over the ill-timed political in-fighting between the two former 'Orange Revolution' allies (EURACTIV 04/09/08). 

Eighteen candidates have submitted registration documents for the elections. At the very end of the campaign, Tymoshenko has promised that her country will become an EU member if she is elected president (EURACTIV 15/01/10). 

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