Voters exit booths at a polling station in Dnipropetrovsk after casting… (Sergei Grits / Associated…)
Reporting from Kiev, Ukraine — Viktor Yanukovich, the former mechanic who just six years ago was shunned as a pro-Moscow stooge, declared victory in Ukraine's presidential election Sunday after early exit polls showed him leading by a slim margin.
Three exit polls showed Yanukovich leading by 4 to 5 percentage points in a runoff election that threatens to deepen political instability in the contentious former Soviet state. His opponent, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, refused to concede, and the numbers were being bitterly argued into the early hours Monday.
If the final count bears out a Yanukovich victory, he will have pulled off the most startling comeback in recent Ukrainian history. It was popular rage over his fraud-tainted presidential election in 2004 that drove Ukrainians into the street en masse to foment the pro-Western Orange Revolution. That uprising forced Yanukovich to surrender the presidency and drove him to the margins of political life.
But with Ukrainians badly battered by an economic crisis and embittered over the corruption and political sniping that consumed the capital under the leadership of the self-declared reformers, Yanukovich surged back to popularity with strong support in Ukraine's industrialized, Russian-speaking east and south.
"I'd like to thank God for helping us turn a new page in the history of our country," Yanukovich said late Sunday. He spoke in Russian, slipping out of the Ukrainian he had adopted during many of his political speeches during the campaign.
Earlier in the evening, Tymoshenko gave a brief, defiant appearance. Standing before cameras with her trademark blond braid wound around her head, she insisted it was too early for anybody to claim victory. The exit polls were mere "sociology," she said, and the estimated gap was within the margin of error.
Ukrainian political observers have fresh memories of last month's first-round vote, when respected exit polls miscalculated the two top candidates' tallies by 4 and 2 percentage points.
"It is my conviction that people who voted for a European, strong, democratic Ukraine are many more than those who don't see Ukraine like that," she said. "If anybody starts announcing or celebrating somebody's victory, it will be a manipulation of people's minds."
In the days before the election, Tymoshenko accused her rival of plotting to carry out massive vote fraud, and threatened to call her followers to street protests if there was evidence of rigging. But in her earliest reaction Sunday, she seemed more preoccupied with inspiring her followers to monitor the count than in accusing Yanukovich of fraud.
"Fight for every vote, because one vote can mean the fate of Ukraine," she said. "Don't relax for one minute."
In a country that has grown jaded about politicians' promises and accustomed to all manner of spectacular infighting, governmental upheaval and political paralysis, Ukrainians were bracing for electoral results that could bring months of court battles, lead to the ouster of Tymoshenko from her post as prime minister and trigger snap parliamentary elections as the country's political lions scramble to rearrange themselves.
Tymoshenko is hardly a foe to underestimate. Charismatic, smooth-spoken and strategically adroit, she rose from a dreary childhood in the industrial provinces to vast power in Ukrainian politics and business.
But she has struggled to overcome the anger of citizens dissatisfied with the drift of the country during her years as a top official. She was widely seen as the more pro-Western of the two candidates, although neither was as openly hostile to Moscow as outgoing President Viktor Yushchenko.
In his victory speech, Yanukovich struck the same populist note that carried him through the campaign. His critics scoff at his sketchy background -- a childhood in a Soviet orphanage, disputed educational achievements and stints in prison on assault charges -- but voters apparently managed to overlook or even embrace his flaws as evidence that he was one of their own.
"We know how many poor people are in this country, how many people need help," he said. "We need to build a policy that will make people feel improvements quickly."
He also issued a thinly veiled warning to Tymoshenko. The election results should be finalized as quickly as possible, he said, so that his administration could begin to fix Ukraine's economy and relieve the poverty of ordinary people.
Ukraine has been hit hard by the global financial crisis, especially in its industrial centers and mining regions.
At the polls, many voters said they were looking for the lesser of two perceived evils.
"Tymoshenko lies a lot and does nothing for the country," said Jana Yusopova, a 74-year-old retired history teacher who voted in central Kiev. "The country ended up in debt because of her, and people's lives got worse."
Sergei Tigipko, a banker and former finance minister who claimed third place in the first round of voting, warned Sunday that Ukraine faces a mighty battle.
Neither Tymoshenko nor Yanukovich will quietly accept a loss, he predicted.
"Unfortunately, we have teams that are ready to go to great lengths to hold on to power," Tigipko told reporters.