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Official Count, Exit Polls Tell Different Stories in Ukraine

Presidential race seems headed to a runoff between prime minister and his pro-West rival, who claimed victory based on voter surveys.

November 01, 2004|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

KIEV, Ukraine — Partial official results in Ukraine's bitterly fought presidential election Sunday gave Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich the lead, but he appeared headed for a runoff with a pro-West opposition leader.

With about 81% of voting districts counted, official results showed Yanukovich with about 42% of the votes. The prime minister has called for stronger ties with Moscow.

Viktor Yushchenko, regarded as a pro-Western democrat and free-market reformer, was second with 37% in a field of 24 candidates.

But high-profile exit polls -- financed in part by the U.S. Embassy and other Western diplomatic missions and conducted by four of Ukraine's most respected polling companies -- put Yushchenko in first place, as did a vote count conducted by his campaign observers.

Yushchenko rushed to claim victory.

"The democratic forces have won in Ukraine," Yushchenko told journalists and supporters early today.

"I'd like to thank the Ukrainian voters.... I thank you for this victory which we have today in Ukraine. It's a matter of great importance. We have been waiting for it for many years, and tens of millions of Ukrainians have been waiting for it."

Yushchenko said the vote count conducted by his supporters showed him with 50% to Yanukovich's 28%, with 31% of voting stations tabulated.

One of the exit polls, conducted with a secret ballot, showed Yushchenko with 45% and Yanukovich with 37%. The other, conducted through interviews, showed Yushchenko with 43% and Yanukovich with 39%. Many foreign observers and Yushchenko supporters were looking at exit poll data to evaluate the credibility of the official count.

If no one wins more than 50% of the vote, the two top finishers will face each other in a Nov. 21 runoff.

The winner will succeed President Leonid D. Kuchma, who has been in power for 10 years. Kuchma's election to a second term in 1999 was criticized by Western human rights groups for violating standards of fairness, as was Ukraine's 2002 parliamentary election.

For 13 troubled years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this nation of 48 million has been torn between a desire for full acceptance by the West and a centuries-long tradition of integration with Russia.

Yushchenko has indicated that, as president, he would push the country toward warmer ties with Western Europe and the United States, whereas Yanukovich has pledged to make Russian a second official language and boost ties with Moscow.

Yushchenko supporters scheduled a rally today to back their candidate and demand a fair vote count.

"We shall not surrender our victory to anyone," Yushchenko told reporters after voting at a polling station in Kiev, warning authorities to count votes "honestly and in accordance with the law."

"If this procedure is violated by the authorities, we shall act accordingly," he said.

"We shall not yield to threats. .... God and justice are with us."

Yanukovich, speaking with reporters after casting his ballot, said the government had done all it could to ensure peaceful voting. He also cited his own record in boosting pensions, which increased his support among the elderly but led to criticism that he was trying to buy votes.

About 150,000 police officers were reported on duty across the country. Crowd-control equipment, including water cannons, and some military vehicles were stationed at the Central Election Commission building in Kiev.

In the last week, amid widespread fears of post-election violence, authorities put up a 10-foot metal fence and a lower temporary fence to protect the building.

Yushchenko, 50, a former prime minister, enjoys strong backing among younger and more educated voters in Kiev and citizens of the country's rural western region, a stronghold of Ukrainian nationalism.

Irina Konchakovskaya, 66, a retired university professor, said she favors Yushchenko because she believes he can be trusted. She also expects him to try to put corrupt businessmen and politicians in jail, she said.

"Yanukovich means going back to the past," she added.

Yanukovich, 54, is most popular in Ukraine's industrialized and largely Russian-speaking eastern region, where many favor the restoration of strong ties with Russia.

"I support Yanukovich because he's very businesslike. He does what he says," a middle-aged government employee who gave only his first name, Nikolay, said after leaving a polling station.

A factory manager and Communist Party member in the Soviet era, Yanukovich had a troubled youth, serving prison time for robbery and assault.

A court expunged his criminal record decades ago, but the opposition questions the reasons for that action and has repeatedly called attention to his record.

Yushchenko's strongly pro-Western team would be willing to make difficult decisions and economic sacrifices to win NATO and European Union membership, predicted Mikhaylo Pogrebinsky, director of the Kiev Center of Political Studies and Conflictology.

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