Exit polls give mixed signals as Ukraine chooses its president

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The Independent Online

An exit poll from Ukraine's fiercely contested presidential election showed last night that the pro-Western opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko was in the lead.

An exit poll from Ukraine's fiercely contested presidential election showed last night that the pro-Western opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko was in the lead.

Early today, however, with about 2 per cent of precincts counted, the Central Elections Commission said that the Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovych, had about 67 per cent of the vote. The count gave Mr Yushchenko only 16 per cent, with 698 of the country's 33,000 precincts counted, the elections commission head, Sergei Kivalov, said.

The exit poll showing Mr Yushchenko ahead by 45 to 37 per cent, conducted by the Kiev International Institute for Sociology and the Razumkov Center for Political and Economic Research, asked voters to fill in a form anonymously.

Another exit poll by the Social Monitoring and Socis groups, which involved face to face interviews, showed Mr Yanukovych leading with 43 per cent of the vote to Mr Yush- chenko's 39 per cent. The discrepancy could indicate concern by respondents over identifying themselves as opposition supporters.

Mr Yanukovych has the backing of President Leonid Kuchma, who has clamped down on opposition. Each poll sampled about 20,000 voters.

Both exit polls indicated that neither candidate would get enough votes for a first-round victory in an election viewed as a key test of democracy in Ukraine and an indicator of what direction Ukrainians will choose for their nation, which has cultivated ties with the West and neighbouring Russia.

Official results that differed sharply from the polls could inflame tensions, which were already high after weeks of opposition claims that officials planned wide-scale vote fraud. The current administration has been criticised by the EU and human rights groups as authoritarian and corrupt.

The Central Elections Commission building was cordoned off Sunday with waist-high metal partitions. Several water-cannon and military-type attack vehicles were positioned around the building under camouflage webbing, apparently in expectation of demonstrations.

More than 20 buses with security forces and at least five armoured vehicles were parked in central Kiev. About 147,000 police were on duty and thousands of additional security forces were assigned to the capital.

Preliminary results from 33,000 polling stations should be known today, with complete results available tomorrow. Turnout is believed to have been more than a 75 per cent of the 37 million eligible to vote. Election monitors said polling in stations around the capital, Kiev, had gone mostly without incident but in other cities serious flaws had been logged.

The leader of a Canadian monitoring mission, John Mrzav, said: "We have had reports of violence in cities in eastern Ukraine where thugs have threatened the heads of polling stations unless they produce an 80 per cent vote for Yanukovych. We are taking these reports very seriously and investigating them."

There were fears that there would be violent clashes in Kiev, a Yushchenko stronghold, after reports that 20,000 Yanukovych supporters from the Donetsk industrial region were heading to the capital. Hundreds did arrive equipped with absentee vote documents allowing them to vote outside the places where they were normally registered. But there seemed to have been a change of heart by the Yanukovych camp and most of his supporters failed to arrive. Journalists said trains from Donetsk arrived in Kiev empty.

The two candidates want to lead their country in opposite directions. Mr Yushchenko has promised to fight corruption, and backs EU and Nato membership. Mr Yanukovych wants Ukraine to become part of a Moscow-led common market with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Brussels has said Ukraine's chances of joining the EU would be adversely affected if it entered a Russian-led union.

In the end the election boiled down to personalities. Mr Yushchenko gained a reputation for honesty when he was the head of Ukraine's national bank, then impressed with a crackdown on corruption during a term as prime minister before he was ousted by members of the present administration angry because he was interfering with the schemes that had made them fabulously wealthy.

One of Mr Yanukovych's nicknames is "Zek" (convict), because he twice served terms for assault and has strong links with the oligarchic business "clan" from his home region of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.

Mr Yanukovych has courted the large ethnic Russian minority, mostly in the east of the country. He has promised to introduce Russian as a second state language and introduce dual citizenship.

Russia's President, Vladimir Putin, visited Ukraine for three days last week in what was seen as an attempt to garner votes for Mr Yanukovych. The day before the election Mr Putin said the Kremlin was looking favourably at dual citizenship.

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