Marking a spectacular personal resurrection, Viktor Yanukovich appeared on course last night to win Ukraine's presidential election, a victory that will take the former Soviet nation back into a closer embrace with Moscow.
Exit polls suggested that the fervour of the Orange Revolution – which prevented Mr Yanukovich assuming the presidency five years ago – had well and truly died. Exit poll figures released by the Central Election Commission had the 59-year-old winning 50.09 per cent of the vote, and his bitter rival Julia Tymoshenko on 44.39 per cent. Other polls gave him a slightly bigger margin of victory. Mr Yanukovich's team celebrated last night and called on Ms Tymoshenko to resign as Prime Minister and concede defeat. He said he would focus on economic reforms during the first months of his presidency.
"I will carry out the reforms that will allow us to overcome soon the consequences of the economic crisis," he told a news conference in Kiev last night.
But Ms Tymoshenko has so far refused to concede the vote, saying it was "too soon to draw any conclusions". She said her team would be monitoring the counting process closely.
She has promised to bring her supporters on to the street if she believes the election results have been falsified and even before the polling booths for yesterday's run-off vote had closed, her campaign team was crying foul. Alexander Turchinov, her campaign chief, said the party would contest results in 1,000 polling stations in Mr Yanukovich's industrial base in the eastern Donetsk region because election observers had been "blocked" from doing their jobs.
The charismatic Ms Tymoshenko, a leader of the Orange coalition, was propelled to power by the revolution five years ago. But she soon fell out with eventual President, Viktor Yushchenko, and formed her own political party. If the exit polls are confirmed, it will be a remarkable comeback for the man dismissed as a cheat and Vladimir Putin's stooge in 2004. Mr Yanukovich has managed to tap into a strong vein of discontent with the Orange leaders, exacerbated by the tough economic times Ukrainians are living through.
"I am sure that the Ukrainian nation deserves a better life. That is why I have voted for good changes, for stability and for a strong Ukraine," he said after casting his vote in the capital. Earlier, that same polling station had been overrun by an infamous all-female group of activists known as Femen, who burst semi-naked into the venue holding placards saying "Stop raping the country".
Elsewhere, polling day provided a continuation of the vitriol that has marked the run-up to the vote, which has been vicious even by the chaotic and aggressive standards of Ukrainian politics. Ms Tymoshenko's campaign staff claimed that supporters of her opponent had killed one of their team in the Western city of Ivano-Frankivsk in the early hours of the morning. Police confirmed the death but said it was likely to be caused by heart failure. A Council of Europe election monitoring mission proclaimed the election fair and honest. "We are 100 percent sure that this election was legitimate," said Matyas Eorsi, a representative of the mission.
Whether or not Ms Tymoshenko accepts the results calmly remains to be seen. But many analysts doubt that Ukrainians are ready to take to the streets again en masse, with the optimism and revolutionary spirit of five years ago drained by endless political infighting and corruption. Kiev resident Natalya Zhuk seemed to sum up the national mood. "It would be terrible to vote for Tymoshenko. It would be shameful to vote for Yanukovich," the 27-year-old voter told Reuters. "Nothing in this country will change in the next five years."Reuse content