Yanukovych declares victory in Ukrainian vote
Douglas Birch And Peter Leonard, Associated Press Writers – 2 hrs 20 mins ago
KIEV, Ukraine – Pro-Russian opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych declared victory in Ukraine's presidential runoff but his opponent rejected the claim, saying the vote was too close to call.
Exit polls showed Yanukovych — the main foe of protesters in Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution — with a narrow lead in Sunday's vote over Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a key figure in those pro-democracy protests.
Ukraine's Central Election Commission reported Monday that Yanukovych was ahead 49.2 percent to 45.2 percent with 61.7 percent of the vote counted.
If the result stands, a Yanukovych victory could restore much of Moscow's influence in a country that has labored to build bridges to the West and closes a chapter in the country's political history that has been defined by the Orange protests.
Polls show that most Ukrainian voters still support the economic and political goals of the 2004 Orange revolt, but many are deeply disillusioned with the failure of its leaders to carry out promised reforms.
"From this day, a new path opens up for Ukraine," Yanukovych declared late Sunday, vowing to "take the country down the path of change."
Three major exit polls showed Yanukovych winning by a few percentage points but Tymoshenko said they were unreliable because the race was so close.
"It is too soon to draw any conclusions," she said, urging supporters to fight for every ballot.
The election commission projected the turnout among Ukraine's 37 million voters at about 70 percent, 3.2 percentage points higher than the Jan. 17 first-round vote in which 18 candidates competed.
Early figures showed a heavier turnout in Yanukovych's strongholds in Ukraine's Russian-speaking east than in Tymoshenko's districts in the country's Ukrainian-speaking west.
The National Election Poll exit survey predicted that after the count, Yanukovych would capture 48.5 percent of the vote to 45.7 percent for Tymoshenko, with other voters mostly choosing "Against all."
The 2.8 percentage point gap is only slightly larger than the NEP's margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percent.
The race narrowed sharply from the first round vote on Jan. 17, when Yanukovych held a 10 percent lead.
At Yanukovych's campaign headquarters, top party officials broke into rapturous applause as they heard the exit polls, and Anna German, deputy head of Yanukovych's Party of Regions, called on Tymoshenko to concede.
"The first rule for a true democrat is to accept defeat when that is the will of the people," she said. "It is now Yulia Tymoshenko's responsibility to do that."
Tymoshenko has vowed to challenge a vote she claims was rigged by in Yanukovych's favor, as it was in the 2004 election that set off the Orange Revolution. After weeks of demonstrations, a court threw out the results of that 2000 vote and Yanukovych lost a court-ordered revote to Tymoshenko's ally, outgoing President Viktor Yushchenko.
This time Yushchenko did not even get enough votes to be part of Sunday's runoff.
Tymoshenko's campaign chief Alexander Turchinov insisted Sunday there was still evidence of fraud. "Intrigue still remains in place, we remain certain," he said.
But Matyas Eorsi, head of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's election observation mission, called the balloting "calm" and "professional" and said there was no evidence the vote had been stolen.
"We are 100 percent sure that this election was legitimate," Eorsi said. "All the international community, and even more important, the Ukrainian public can accept this result."
A preliminary report by international monitors is expected later Monday.
Mikhail Okhendovsky, a member of Ukraine's Central Election Commission, said the board had no evidence of large scale falsification but expects that the loser will challenge the results in court anyway.
"In keeping with the traditions of Ukrainian elections, the loser never accepts defeat," he said before the polls closed.
Tymoshenko's impassioned leadership of the 2004 Orange protests made her an international celebrity, and she fought hard in recent weeks to rekindle the heady emotions those days. At one point she debated an empty lectern to dramatize her opponent's refusal to face her.
She sought to depict herself as a populist whose appeal crossed Ukraine's east-west divide but she bore the scars of five years of political battles with Yanukovych and Yushchenko, and had struggled to cope with Ukraine's severe economic crisis.
Ukraine has been among the hardest-hit nations in the global credit crunch. Its currency crashed in 2008, wiping out almost half of people's savings, and the International Monetary Fund had to step in with a $16.4 billion bailout. GDP plunged more than 14 percent in 2009 and the country is expected to have only anemic growth this year, according to the World Bank.
Yanukovych, awkward when speaking in public, tread carefully as the runoff approached, sticking mostly with photo opportunities and bland statements. He would not be drawn into a Russia-versus-West debate but pledged to balance ties between Ukraine's diverse neighbors.
"Ukraine will never be a friend with Russia at the expense of Europe, or Europe at the expense of Russia," said Boris Kolesnikov, deputy leader of Yanukovych's Party of Regions. "That will guide the foreign policy under the Yanukovych presidency."
But Yanukovych represents the hopes of many Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine, who feel they have been relegated to second-class status behind city dwellers who favored the Orange reform forces.
If Yanukovych wins, it will be an impressive reversal of fortune. During the 2004 protests, foes cast him as a Kremlin lackey. But he battled back, even serving for a time as prime minister under his main Orange adversary, Yushchenko.
Casting his ballot in Kiev, once an Orange bastion, Yanukovych said the election would mark the "first step in overcoming the crisis."
"The people of Ukraine deserve a better life, so I voted for positive changes, stability and a strong Ukraine," he said.
Tymoshenko voted in her hometown, the industrial center of Dnipropetrovsk, in Yanukovych's stronghold of eastern Ukraine.
"I voted for a new Ukraine — a beautiful and European Ukraine — and for people to live happily. I will serve Ukraine with all my heart," Tymoshenko said, standing next to her husband.
Sunday's vote may shift the balance of power in Ukraine but it will not heal the country's deep divisions.
"I am voting against the return of our Soviet past," 40-year-old businessman Vladimir Khivrenko said near the Maidan, the central square in Kiev, the capital. "Tymoshenko has promised us a new path to Europe, and I believe her."
Tatyana Volodaschuk, 60, said she was sick of political uncertainty.
"I want stability and order," she said. "Yanukovych offers us the guarantee of a normal life."
Associated Press Writers Simon Shuster and Yuras Karmanau contributed to this report.