KIEV, Ukraine, Nov. 22 -- The outcome in Ukraine's extraordinarily tense presidential election remained uncertain early Monday, with Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych leading by a percentage point over challenger Viktor Yushchenko with about 75 percent of the vote counted, according to the Central Election Commission.
Thousands of Yushchenko's supporters poured onto the streets of central Kiev Sunday night in what his campaign said was a show of popular strength to prevent election fraud. It quickly turned into a victory party as exit polls gave their candidate the lead.
"We are celebrating, and this is a victory for each of you," Yushchenko's campaign chief, Oleksandr Zinchenko, said in an address to supporters in Kiev's Independence Square.
The Yanukovych campaign said the exit polls, which were funded by the United States and other Western countries, and the demonstration were a calculated effort to preempt the official result, which they contend will show their candidate has won by as much as 5 percentage points. They noted that a large turnout in eastern Ukraine, a Yanukovych stronghold, could yet upset early predictions of a Yushchenko win.
The official count had Yanukovych with 48 percent of the vote, compared with Yushchenko's 47 percent. But according to a survey by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, Yushchenko had 54 percent of the vote to 43 percent for Yanukovych. A second poll by the Socis agency gave Yushchenko 49.4 percent of the vote to 45.4 percent for Yanukovych, Ukrainian television reported.
"These polls don't work," said Gennady Korzh, a spokesman for Yanukovych. "We will win by between 3 to 5 percent. And remember, if Americans believed exit polls, and not the actual count, John Kerry would be president."
The official vote count could take days; it took the commission 10 days to finalize the count in a first round of voting three weeks ago and it reversed the preliminary result, that time in Yushchenko's favor.
The likelihood that one side or the other will refuse to accept the final, official result has raised fears of violent unrest. Riot police backed by armored personnel carriers and water cannons on Sunday surrounded the Central Elections Commission building in Kiev, where votes from around the country were being collated. Outgoing President Leonid Kuchma said in a televised address to the nation that "the authorities will never let an aggressive minority dictate their political will to the country. There's won't be any revolution. There will be elections."
A Yushchenko victory would likely tilt Ukraine, a former Soviet republic of 48 million people, toward the West as the opposition candidate, a 50-year-old former prime minister and central banker, said he is open to much closer cooperation with NATO and the European Union with a view ultimately to joining both.
Yanukovych, on the other hand, leans much more toward Russia, promising to make Russian an official language, join an economic union with its larger neighbor and end border controls between the two countries. Russian President Vladimir Putin twice visited Ukraine during the campaign in a thinly disguised effort to bolster Yanukovych.
The prime minister has said that his policy toward Russia should not be mistaken for hostility toward the West, and that the depiction of the election as a kind of Cold War struggle between East and West was a caricature.
For his part, Yushchenko has said he wants a normal relationship with Russia, which remains critical to the country because of energy supplies and major investments by Russian business, but Putin's perceived intervention has clearly embittered the opposition.
As in the first round of voting, in which the pool of 24 candidates was whittled down to two, Western observers said Sunday's vote was marred by serious violations of democratic standards, and local officials often appeared to be exploiting their powers to support Yanukovych. In the Kirovograd region in southeastern Ukraine, for example, 469 poll workers for the opposition were prevented from doing their jobs, despite a court order that banned such actions by local authorities. By the time the courts reinstated the opposition poll workers Sunday, polls were about to close.
The Yanukovych campaign also alleged that there were widespread irregularities in western Ukraine, a Yushchenko stronghold. In central Ukraine, a policeman was killed at a polling station when he was hit on the head, according to Elections Commission Chairman Serhiy Kivalov. The death is under investigation.
"We've seen critical flaws in the election which are similar to the large-scale problems in the first round," said Patrick Merloe, director of elections for the U.S. government-funded National Democratic Institute, which has an observer mission here. "But at this stage it's too early to say what their impact will be."
In a letter delivered to Kuchma on Friday, President Bush, echoing similar statements by the European Union, warned Kuchma to make sure that the voting was free and the count was accurate.
"A tarnished election . . . will lead us to review our relations with Ukraine," Bush wrote.
Despite the alleged violations, the country was galvanized by the election, in which no one knew who the winner was in advance, an unusual circumstance in a post-Soviet election. According to the Elections Commission, more than 76 percent of registered voters turned out. At polling stations in Kiev, people milled outside Sunday afternoon as they waited their turn to vote.
"It's time for a change," said Vladimir Chernyakevich, 66, a retired engineer who voted for Yushchenko in the eastern part of the city. "Kuchma has been president for 10 years and has done nothing, and Yanukovych is his man."
Another voter, Vladimir Kachurets, 72, said he voted for Yanukovych because he recently raised pensions, a decision that the prime minister's campaign hoped would swing the election for him.
"I like Yanukovych's program," said Kachurets, after casting his vote in a central Kiev district. "He wants to take care of the old people."