Exit polls showed pro-Russian opposition leader Victor Yanukovych with a narrow lead Sunday in Ukraine's presidential runoff — a result that could restore much of Moscow's influence in a country that has labored to build bridges to the West.
The National Election Poll survey predicted that Yanukovych would capture 48.7 percent of the vote to 45.5 percent for Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, with other voters mostly choosing "Against all." The 3.2 percentage point gap is slightly larger than the NEP's margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percent.
All the other major exit polls also showed Yanukovych winning, some by a slightly larger margin.
Nevertheless, Sunday's runoff vote appeared to be much closer than the first round Jan. 17, when Yanukovych had a 10 percentage-point lead over Tymoshenko.
Despite the polls, Tymoshenko, the darling of Ukraine's 2004 pro-Western Orange Revolution, declared that she was still in the race.
"It is too soon to draw any conclusions," Tymoshenko said. "A split of three percent is within the margin of error."
She urged her supporters to fight for every ballot and said her team would be closely monitoring the counting process. Tymoshenko has repeatedly claimed that her opponent planned to falsify the vote — something that certainly happened in the 2004 presidential election.
But Matyas Eorsi, from the Council of Europe's observation mission, called Sunday's election "calm" and "professional" and said there was no evidence it 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." Tymoshenko's impassioned leadership of the 2004 Orange protests against a rigged presidential ballot allegedly won by Yanukovych made her an international celebrity. That ballot was thrown out by the courts for fraud, and Yanukovych was trounced by Orange forces in a revote as foes cast him as a Kremlin lackey.
Fearing new protests, Yanukovych supporters camped out in front of the Central Election Commission headquarters and other key points in Kyiv in an apparent effort to prevent Tymoshenko supporters from staging mass demonstrations.
The prime minister, with her trademark blond braid, has fought hard in recent weeks to rekindle the heady emotions of the Orange protest days, at one point debating an empty lectern to dramatize the stern-faced Yanukovych's refusal to debate her.
But despite depicting herself as a populist whose appeal crossed Ukraine's east-west divide, she bore the scars of five years of political battles with Yanukovych and her sometime Orange ally, outgoing President Victor Yushchenko, and has struggled to cope with Ukraine's severe economic crisis.
Ukraine's 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 according to the World Bank, Ukraine will have only anemic growth this year.
As the election approached, Yanukovych, a veteran politician popular in Ukraine's Russian-speaking east, tread carefully, sticking mostly with photo opportunities and bland statements, apparently trying to hang onto his lead.
He has pledged to restore order and says he will try to balance the country's ties to east and west. But he represents the hopes of many in eastern Ukraine, who feel they have been relegated to second-class status by their countrymen in western Ukraine.
If Yanukovych wins, it will be an impressive reversal of fortune. After the 2004 vote was thrown out he has battled back, even serving for a time as prime minister under his Orange adversary, Yushchenko.
Yanukovych has gained ground as voters said they were weary of broken promises, a dysfunctional economy and political chaos under the Orange government.
Tymoshenko cast her ballot in the industrial center of Dnipropetrovsk in 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," she said, standing next to her husband.
In Kyiv, 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.
The faith of some Orange voters wasn't shaken despite years of wrangling by Orange leaders.
"I am voting against the return of our Soviet past," 40-year-old businessman Vladimir Khivrenko said at a polling station near the Maidan, the central square in Kyiv, the capital. "Tymoshenko has promised us a new path to Europe, and I believe her."
But Yanukovych loyalists were not impressed with the Orange movement's tenure.
"I want stability and order," said 60-year-old retiree Tatyana Volodaschuk. "Yanukovych offers us the guarantee of a normal life."
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