Exit polls place pro-Kremlin Yanukovych as new president of Ukraine

AN EXIT poll says opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych has been elected Ukraine’s next president, steering the country away from the pro-Western course set by the 2004 Orange Revolution.

The National Election Poll predicted the Russia-leaning Yanukovych would finish first in yesterday’s runoff ballot against Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, 48.7% to 45.5%.

Tymoshenko, whose impassioned leadership of the 2004 Orange protests made her an international celebrity, has vowed to challenge a vote she claims was rigged. Some pro-Western Ukrainians fear Yanukovych could bring a retreat from Western democratic reforms, and the muzzling of media and opposition parties.

The candidates were most divided over domestic policy. Yanukovych and Tymoshenko are both likely to restore closer ties with Moscow, which is trying to revive its influence among former Soviet client states.

The candidates have traded charges of vote manipulation. Both vowed to rally thousands of supporters after the vote if they suspect their opponent of trying to steal victory. Opinion polls were banned in the run-up to the vote but analysts had predicted a tight race. If the protests are prolonged or violent, the unrest could further aggravate Ukraine’s political and economic troubles. The former Soviet republic has suffered from years of divided government and has been hit badly by the economic crisis.

Ukraine’s economy shrank by more than 14% in 2009, according to US government figures. The candidates have traded sensational and sometimes dubious charges of intimidation and fraud. Tymoshenko’s campaign manager charged her rival’s supporters with killing a member of her staff on election day, but police and an independent election monitoring group said the man died of heart failure.

The faith of some Orange voters hasn’t been shaken, despite years of wrangling by Orange leaders that helped derail promised reforms. “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 Kiev where vast crowds rallied for weeks in late 2004. “Tymoshenko has promised us a new path to Europe, and I believe her,” he said.

But Yanukovych’s loyalists are 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.”

Many independent voters say they are weary of five years of tumultuous rule by the blond-braided politician and her Orange ally, President Viktor Yuschenko, and by the unfulfilled promises of the peaceful street protests of 2004. If Yanukovych wins, it will be an impressive reversal of fortune.

His Kremlin-backed election as president five years ago triggered the mass Orange demonstrations, and his win was thrown out on grounds of massive election fraud. Yanukovych polled 10 percentage points ahead of Tymoshenko in January’s first round of the current elections.

There were some protests yesterday. At a polling station in Kiev, four female members of the activist group FEMEN staged a protest by stripping to the waist.

“This is the end of democracy,” they shouted, in protest at what they said was widespread manipulation of the democratic system.

Tymoshenko’s forces accused her rival’s camp of blocking up to 1,000 of her supporters from taking their seats on local election boards in Donetsk, a Yanukovych stronghold. The Yanukovych campaign has denied comment. Yanukovych’s campaign charged Tymoshenko supporters delivered ballots to polling stations that had incorrect numerical codes, giving officials an excuse to declare them invalid.

The Central Elections Commission said some errors had been made due to the scale of work required to print millions of ballot papers.

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