Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine's fiery prime minister, surprised her opponents in yesterday's first round of the presidential election by doing unexpectedly well and securing a chance of defeating the frontrunner, opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich, in next month's run-off.
In the first presidential election since the 2004 Orange Revolution, Mr Yanukovich won 31 to 35 per cent of the vote, according to preliminary exit polls. Ms Tymoshenko came second with 25 to 27 per cent, about 5 percentage points more than had been indicated by pre-election opinion polls.
But analysts say she is much better placed than Mr Yanukovich to win votes from the other 16 candidates, including the pro-west president Viktor Yushchenko, who won just 5 to 6 per cent, according to the exit polls. If the actual gap is the same as the exit polls "Tymoshenko has a strong chance to defeat Yanukovich", said Volodymyr Fesenko, a political analyst.
The result leaves Ukrainian politics on a knife-edge, with Ms Tymoshenko and Mr Yanukovich, the defeat- ed candidate in the disputed 2004 poll, likely to battle over every vote in the weeks before the run-off on February 7.
Ms Tymoshenko attacked Mr Yanukovich over his big business backing, saying: "The majority of Ukrainian voters showed they are ready to vote for democracy, against criminal gangs and oligarchy."
The election, which follows five years of in-fighting, is being closely watched because of concerns about possible cheating, Ukraine's fragile economy and its strategic location between Russia and the European Union. The vote is also a test of democratic standards in Ukraine - an outpost of political freedom in the former Soviet Union.
Voting yesterday was hampered by winter weather, with voters slipping on icy streets as they made their way to ballot stations. Allegations of electoral misconduct surfaced, with sporadic reports of break-ins and ballot-tampering. But Volodymyr Shapoval, head of Ukraine's central election committee, downplayed the allegations, saying: "There will be no extraordinary situations, the elections will take place." International monitors will report today.
In the run-up to the voting, the frontrunners accused each other of plotting fraud. It was not clear if there was any substance to the claims. More than 3,000 foreign monitors were deployed, including 800 from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and EU states. The Committee of Voters of Ukraine, an election watchdog, said poor planning, administrative abuses and election law loopholes left room for abuse.
Now, much will depend on Sergei Tigipko, a wealthy banker-politician, who came third in yesterday's vote with just over 13 per cent, making him a likely kingmaker. Last night Mr Tigipko said he would not support either second round candidate.
The new president's priority will be restoring political stability and confidence in the recession-hit economy and resuming co-operation with the International Monetary Fund, which has suspended a $16.4bn (?11.3bn, £10bn) package.
Russia has kept its distance but, to Moscow's satisfaction, both leading candidates have stressed their desire to improve relations with Russia, while sticking to EU membership plans.
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