Yushchenko claims victory in Ukrainian presidential election
Viktor Yushchenko last night claimed victory in Ukraine's presidential election. Early exit polls from the unprecedented third round of voting gave the pro-Western candidate a commanding lead.
Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych came close to conceding defeat after nationwide exit polls showed him trailing his rival 41 to 56 per cent, a margin backed by early results. "If I lose, there will be a tough opposition. They will see what an opposition means," he said.
Predictions of disruption and bloodshed failed to materialise and the poll took place under the eyes of an army of foreign observers, there to prevent the massive fraud that saw the result of the last round annulled.
The outcome is expected to determine whether the large European country forges closer links with the West or is drawn back into the orbit of its former Soviet colonial master Russia, which has lent strong backing to the Yanukovych campaign.
The opposition leader Mr Yushchenko, an advocate of closer ties with Nato and the EU, was in bullish mood as he voted in the capital, Kiev: "I'll win. That's 100 per cent. I'm absolutely certain."
The vote was a rerun of the second round of the election, held on 21 November but later annulled by the country's Supreme Court which ruled that the government had rigged it in favour of Mr Yanukovych.
The Prime Minister was hand-picked by the incumbent President Leonid Kuchma, accused of human rights abuse, corruption and involvement in murder. Mr Yanukovych said he would offer dual Ukrainian-Russian citizenship and make Russian a state language if he wins. He accuses his rival of staging a "coup" on behalf of foreign powers, after thousands of opposition supporters brought Kiev and other cities to a standstill with demonstrations.
Mr Yanukovych signed up to Russian President Vladimir Putin's plan to create a new Moscow-led political bloc, comprising Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. The plan now seems doomed.
Mr Yushchenko has signalled that he will not risk harming further integration with the West. The EU and the World Trade Organisation have both indicated the Russian scheme would preclude Ukraine's membership of those bodies. Russia was accused by the EU and the US of interfering in the last round of voting. Moscow is believed to have invested around £200m in Mr Yanukovych's campaign.
During the bitterly contested campaign the government was accused of using state resources, intimidation, censorship, and bribery to boost its chances. At the height of the struggle, Mr Yushchenko was rushed to an Austrian clinic after apparently being poisoned. Tests showed that he had been given a potentially fatal dose of dioxin.
Many of his supporters believe he was poisoned on Russian orders and that has strained relations between Kiev and Moscow. Mr Yushchenko has said his first visit as President would be to Moscow to mend fences. But he emphasised that the visit to Moscow would be the beginning of a new relationship as equals and that Moscow's ascendancy was at an end.
Hundreds of thousands of Yushchenko supporters, many waving orange party banners, came out on to the streets of Kiev for 17 days after the last round of voting and helped force yesterday's rerun in what became known as the "Orange Revolution".
The opposition forced measures through parliament that it hoped would reduce the government's scope for fraud. It alleges Mr Yanukovych gained up to an extra 4 million "stolen" votes in the last election, out of a total electorate of 36 million, because of fraud.
More than 300,000 Ukrainians were present as monitors at the country's 33,300 polling sites yesterday. More than 12,000 foreign observers were on hand to watch the election process.
Both sides accused each other of cheating. Yushchenko supporters said their opponents rigged voting at a few individual polling sites in the Kharkiv, Odessa, Zaporizhia and Dnipropetrovsk regions, chiefly by abusing home-voting rules for the disabled and elderly.
Yanukovych supporters accused their opponents of turning off lifts in tall buildings in Kiev and preventing disabled people from being transported to polling sites to prevent ballots being cast in favour of the Prime Minister. The chairman of the Central Election Committee, Yarolslav Davydovych, said the committee was looking into the allegations but added that the vote in general was proceeding smoothly. Turnout was expected to be between 75 and 80 per cent.
Preliminary results of the voting were expected today although the election commission expects challenges from the Yanukovych team and has said that the earliest full results would probably not be issued until New Year's Eve.
However, as the polling stations closed last night, thousands of Yushchenko supporters joined those who have been camped in the city centre for a month. They watched giant television monitors announcing exit poll findings and early results from the regions.
They waited for Mr Yushchenko who was supposed to address them from the stage in the capital's Independence Square where he has addressed crowds of up to half a million since the protests began after the election last month.