KIEV, Ukraine. Dec. 27 -- Nearly complete official returns showed opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko taking a commanding lead over Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine's repeat presidential runoff election on Sunday. While Yanukovych indicated he was resigned to losing, his campaign threatened to challenge the validity of the vote in court, as Yushchenko's did after the first runoff.
With ballots from just over 95 percent of precincts counted, Yushchenko was leading with 54 percent of the vote compared with Yanukovych's 42 percent, the Associated Press reported early Monday.
Supporters of Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko celebrate his apparent victory in the presidential race in Kiev's Independence Square.
(Petar Kujundzic -- Reuters)
The rerun election followed a Nov. 21 vote, which was invalidated by the country's Supreme Court amid widespread charges of fraud. Yanukovych had been declared the winner of that vote.
"It happened," said a jubilant Yushchenko, speaking in the capital at 2 a.m. Monday. "For 14 years, we were independent, but now we are free. . . . Today, I am convinced that it is fashionable to be a Ukrainian. It's stylish. It's beautiful."
Yushchenko, who favors strengthening ties with Europe, later told hundreds of supporters at Independence Square that the result represented "a clear political victory . . . an elegant political victory."
Analysts said the size of Yushchenko's margin appeared unassailable.
"Dear God, let this be the final vote," said the outgoing president, Leonid Kuchma, as he cast his ballot Sunday, a sentiment echoed by supporters of both candidates. "In my opinion, the one who loses should call and congratulate the winner . . . and put an end to this prolonged election campaign."
Kuchma has been president for 10 years, but his term has been dogged by charges of corruption and other scandals. Yushchenko, a former central bank governor, has promised economic reforms and an elimination of the corruption attributed to Kuchma.
"What we did during the last 30 days was a tribute to our ancestors," Yushchenko told reporters after voting in Kiev. "I know they are looking at us from heaven, and they are applauding."
Authorities estimated that 75 percent of registered voters in this country of 48 million people turned up at more than 33,000 polling stations. Twelve thousand international monitors observed the process. Officials said it was the largest number of election observers ever seen anywhere.
Yanukovych appeared dejected when he spoke at his campaign headquarters in Kiev after the polls closed. "I'm hoping for victory, but if it's a defeat . . . there will be a strong opposition, and they will see what a real opposition is," he said, promising that he and his supporters would act according to the law. Yanukovych said he would congratulate his opponent only "with regret" and sighed as he all but conceded that he might have to.
Yushchenko's supporters rallied in Independence Square Sunday night to celebrate what many of them saw as success in securing the country's democratic future. In the days after the first runoff, the square appeared to be a sea of orange, as supporters turned out carrying the signature color of Yushchenko's campaign. When they returned Sunday night, it was to celebrate rather than protest.
"This is the people's victory," said Oleksandr Hupalo, 38, who owns a cosmetics company and was on the square Sunday night. "I came to the square at the very beginning, and if it wasn't for us here, nothing would have happened. Ukraine will finally achieve what it wanted when it got its independence from the Soviet Union. Democracy will finally reign in this country. It won't happen overnight, but it's begun."
The presidential race has left the country polarized after a struggle in the streets and the courts that rekindled Cold War-era disputes between Russia and the West. Russian President Vladimir Putin had backed Yanukovych, quickly congratulating him after the last vote, while both the United States and the European Union supported Yushchenko and vocally challenged the results of the first runoff ballot.