- The Washington Times - Monday, February 8, 2010

KIEV | Initial official results and exit polls showed pro-Russian opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych with a narrow lead Sunday in Ukraine’s presidential runoff — a result that could restore much of Moscow’s influence in a country that has labored to build bridges to the West.

The National Election Poll survey predicted that Mr. Yanukovych would capture 48.7 percent of the vote to 45.5 percent for Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, with other voters mostly choosing “Against all.” The 3.2 percentage point gap is slightly larger than the NEP’s margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percent.

All the other major exit polls also showed Mr. Yanukovych winning, some by a slightly larger margin.

First official results, announced by the Central Election Commission after 5.37 percent of the votes were counted, showed Mr. Yanukovych with 54.02 percent and Mrs. Tymoshenko with 41.09 percent, Reuters news agency reported.

Mr. Yanukovych had a 10 percentage-point lead over Mrs. Tymoshenko in the first round of voting on Jan. 17.

Despite the polls, Mrs. Tymoshenko, the darling of Ukraine’s 2004 pro-Western Orange Revolution, declared that she was still in the race.

“It is too soon to draw any conclusions,” Mrs. Tymoshenko said. “A split of 3 percent is within the margin of error.”

She urged her supporters to fight for every ballot and said her team would be closely monitoring the counting process. Mrs. Tymoshenko has repeatedly claimed that her opponent planned to falsify the vote — something that certainly happened in the 2004 presidential election.

But Matyas Eorsi, from the Council of Europe’s observation mission, called Sunday’s election “calm” and “professional” and said there was no evidence it had been stolen.

“We are 100 percent sure that this election was legitimate,” Mr. Eorsi said. “All the international community, and even more important, the Ukrainian public can accept this result.”

Mrs. Tymoshenko’s impassioned leadership of the 2004 Orange Revolution protests against a rigged presidential ballot purportedly won by Mr. Yanukovych made her an international celebrity. That ballot was thrown out by the courts for fraud, and Mr. Yanukovych was trounced by Orange Revolution forces in a revote as foes cast him as a Kremlin lackey.

Fearing new protests, Yanukovych supporters camped out in front of the election commission headquarters and other key points in Kiev in an apparent effort to prevent Tymoshenko supporters from staging mass demonstrations.

The prime minister has fought hard in recent weeks to rekindle the heady emotions of the Orange Revolution protest days, at one point debating an empty lectern to dramatize Mr. Yanukovych’s refusal to debate her.

But, despite depicting herself as a populist whose appeal crossed Ukraine’s east-west divide, she bore the scars of five years of political battles with Mr. Yanukovych and her sometime Orange Revolution ally, outgoing President Viktor Yushchenko, and has struggled to cope with Ukraine’s severe economic crisis.

As the election approached, Mr. Yanukovych, a veteran politician popular in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east, tread carefully, sticking mostly with photo opportunities and bland statements, apparently trying to hang onto his lead.

If Mr. Yanukovych wins, it will be an impressive reversal of fortune. After the 2004 vote was thrown, out he has battled back, even serving for a time as prime minister under his Orange Revolution adversary, Mr. Yushchenko.

Mr. Yanukovych has gained ground as voters said they were weary of broken promises, a dysfunctional economy and political chaos under the Orange Revolution government.

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