Ukraine's Orange revolution turns blue
· Comeback for Yanukovich after his opponents split
· Nato membership at risk if MPs turn back to Moscow
The divided leaders of Ukraine's orange revolution were beaten into second place in parliamentary elections yesterday, less than 18 months since jubilant crowds swept them to power.
Early exit polls suggested the former prime minister, Viktor Yanukovich, was likely to seize between a quarter and a third of parliament, raising the possibility he could take back his post. That would put him in an uneasy cohabitation with Viktor Yushchenko, the president and his opponent during the falsified election which gave birth to the revolution in late 2004 and early 2005.
Mr Yanukovich's Party of the Regions led with 33% in a nationwide independent exit poll published as polling stations closed at 10pm local time.
Mr Yushchenko's erstwhile ally Yulia Timoshenko appeared to have made a surprisingly strong finish with 23% for her bloc. The president's Our Ukraine party, which had been expected to come second, came third with less than 14%, according to the exit poll.
This suggested a humiliating defeat for the president and other leaders of the revolution, although Ms Timoshenko will be in a strengthened position to take the premiership in the case of a revived orange coalition.
Mr Yushchenko's post was not at stake, but a big win for the Party of the Regions could allow it to deflect the country from its pro-western course, reject Nato membership, and switch its trajectory back towards Russia. But the outcome still depends on intense horsetrading between the three main parties which could last for weeks after the vote. Whether Mr Yushchenko and Ms Timoshenko's supporters can reunite their orange team remains in doubt. She took her party into opposition in September after she had been sacked from the premiership when corruption allegations between senior officials came into the open.
Voting in the capital, Kiev, Mr Yushchenko promised his party would start coalition talks with its former allies today. He claimed Ukraine's foreign policy would not change whatever the result. Mr Yanukovich played down claims the country's trajectory would be altered if his party took a big chunk of parliament. "Europe'll support Ukraine, and Ukraine will build mutually beneficial relations with all nations, including the European Union," he said on casting his ballot.
As in the past, the former prime minister was set to receive a big tranche of votes from the south and east of the country, where people favour close ties with Moscow. In Simferopol, capital of the Russian-speaking Crimea region, his supporters were bullish as they joined long queues at polling stations. "Yanukovich is going to get a decent share of the votes and then things will finally change for the better," said Sergei Godunov, 30, a technician at a vodka factory, as he waited at polling booth number 1 on Pushkin Street. "I'm sick of living through crisis. All we've seen since that so-called revolution is rising prices and falling standards of living."
Yevgeny Bubnov, a deputy in the Crimean parliament, said he was running on a Party of the Regions ticket because Mr Yanukovich had promised to introduce Russian as a second official language.
"Our babushkas cannot even read the instructions on their medicines these days because everything has to be in Ukrainian," he said. "How is that fair to one half of the population?" Voters struggled with long ballot papers that needed elaborate folding in order to force them into ballot boxes. But turnout was high at 58% two hours before polls closed.