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Ukraine election: free, fair and headed for a run-off

Viktor Yanukovich will face-off with Yulia Tymoshenko in closely watched contest.

A man reads newspaper with pictures of presidential candidates Viktor Yanukovich and Yulia Tymoshenko on the cover in a subway carriage in Kiev Jan. 18, 2010. (Konstantin Chernichkin/Reuters)

KIEV, Ukraine — Ukrainians brace themselves for a bitter second act of their national political soap opera, as Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine’s firebrand prime minister, and Viktor Yanukovich, the opposition leader from the country’s east who suffered defeat five years ago, collected the most votes but failed to deal a knock-out blow in presidential voting on Sunday. 

One day after the fractious, recession-wracked ex-Soviet nation went to the polls to select a leader for the next five years, results showed that, as had been anticipated, no candidate received the necessary 50 percent of the vote needed to win outright. 

With more than 95 percent of the ballots counted, Yanukovich won about 35 percent and Tymoshenko 25 percent, the country’s Central Election Commission said, in voting that was free of any major violations. 

Both candidates claimed that they were now well-placed to prevail in the Feb. 7 run-off. Tymoshenko said that she would seek endorsements from those contenders who finished just behind her — namely ex-Central Bank head Sergey Tigipko, with 13 percent, and former parliament speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk, with 7 percent. 

“Yanukovych's hand will never be placed on the Bible to take the presidential oath,” Tymoshenko said. She claimed results showed that the combined “democratic forces” made up more 60 percent of the electorate. Tigipko and Yatsenyuk so far have said that they will refrain from backing either of the remaining candidates. 

Yanukovich for his part said that the voting marked the “end to Orange power” — a reference to the 2004 Orange Revolution that took place the last time Ukrainians chose a president. Yanukovich originally triumphed in those elections, but massive street protests against perceived falsifications forced another round of voting and resulted in the victory of Viktor Yushchenko — an anti-Russian former Central Bank head whose pock-marked face from a mysterious poisoning became the worldwide image of the Ukrainian opposition — and his main ally, Tymoshenko.

Analysts so far are divided on whether Sunday’s results indicate an ultimate Tymoshenko or Yanukovich win. Dmytro Boyarchuk, executive director of the CASE Center for Social and Economic Research in Kiev, says that Yanukovich’s popularity has peaked and he will not receive more than 40 percent in the next electoral battle. “Tymoshenko should be more satisfied with the results,” he said. 

But according to Mihail Pogrebinsky of the Ukrainian Center for Political Studies and Conflictology, the election is now Yanukovich’s to lose. Tymoshenko, he said, will find it difficult to bridge the 10 percent gap separating her from the six-foot-six former mechanic, who polled strongest in the Russian-speaking regions. 

“I give Yanukovich an 80 percent chance,” Pogrebinsky said. “Only a mass of mistakes will lose it for him.”