Ukraine officially launched on Monday a presidential election campaign, the first since the 2004 "orange revolution" that brought Viktor Yushchenko to power.

Yushchenko is running for reelection, but with poll ratings in the low single digits is unlikely to win the January 17 contest.

Opinion polls point to Viktor Yanukovych, the president's opponent in the 2004 race, as a leading contender, along with former ally and now rival Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Analysts predict both will go into a runoff vote.

Ukrainians hope the election will end several years of political infighting that has complicated decision-making in the country, which has been hit hard by the global recession.

Both Yanukovych, a former premier backed by Russian-speaking eastern regions, and Tymoshenko are expected to improve ties with Russia, which worsened dramatically over Yushchenko's pursuit of NATO membership, natural gas prices and other issues.

According to the latest poll conducted by the Ukraine Public Opinion Foundation, 26.8% of voters are ready to cast their votes for Yanukovych. The incumbent leader trails with a mere 2.2%.

Tymoshenko has 15.6% and former parliamentary speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk is placed third with 9.3%.

Other contenders include Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko, former National Bank chief Serhiy Tygypko and the Supreme Rada's current speaker, Volodymyr Lytvyn.

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