In a comeback, Yanukovych leads Tymoshenko in bid for Ukraine president

By Philip P. Pan and John Pancake
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 8, 2010

The party boss who was accused of election fraud and toppled by Ukraine's peaceful Orange Revolution appeared on the verge of a remarkable comeback Sunday, with exit polls suggesting that he had prevailed in a bitter presidential race and won the office denied him by mass protests five years ago.

The polls showed Viktor Yanukovych, a burly former electrician once dismissed as a corrupt Kremlin lackey, edging out Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko by three to six percentage points in a contest both had cast as a referendum on the pro-West, pro-democracy uprising that captivated the world in late 2004.

Yanukovych claimed victory late Sunday, but Tymoshenko, the sharp-tongued heroine of the Orange Revolution, refused to concede, saying that his lead in the exit polls fell within the statistical margin of error.

As the official count continued into the night, she urged her supporters to be on the lookout for falsification. "Don't rest, don't rest! Protect the vote!" she said, adding that her campaign was conducting a "parallel count."

If the final results confirm the exit polls, it would represent a stunning repudiation of the Orange Revolution government, which came to power promising democratic reform and closer ties with the West but became mired by infighting and failed to reduce rampant corruption.

It would also be a gratifying victory for the Kremlin, which endorsed, campaigned for and prematurely congratulated Yanukovych in his bid five years ago, only to be humiliated when the vote was invalidated and he lost a runoff. Russian leaders describe the Orange Revolution as a U.S.-financed coup and have repeatedly clashed with Ukraine over its efforts to join NATO and assert a more independent national identity.

In a brief victory speech, Yanukovych, 59, vowed to quickly repair Ukraine's battered economy, one of the hardest hit by the global recession, and said the election showed that people "were fed up with the life they had and wanted change."

Earlier in the day, Tymoshenko's campaign said it would challenge votes at more than 1,000 polling stations where it encountered irregularities, including an effort to block its representatives from taking seats on local election boards.

But Taskyn Rakhimbek, mission chief for the European Network of Election Monitoring Organizations, said its observers had not detected major problems.

A disputed election would prolong the political instability that has affected this former Soviet republic for much of the past five years. It could also deal another blow to Ukraine's economy and hamper efforts to unfreeze a $16.4 billion emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund.

Yanukovych, who was prime minister before the Orange Revolution, never admitted or apologized for the widely documented effort to steal the last election. Instead, as leader of the opposition Party of Regions, he ran a classic anti-incumbent campaign that pinned the blame for the nation's problems on Tymoshenko, 49.

With the help of an American political consultant, he also recast his image, carefully highlighting his independence from Moscow and pledging to continue efforts to integrate Ukraine with Europe.

In a sign of his confidence in victory, as well as his weakness as a public speaker, he refused to debate Tymoshenko, a charismatic former gas magnate who ridiculed him as a dim-witted stooge of the Kremlin and oligarchs.

Outgoing President Viktor Yushchenko, the Orange Revolution leader whose face was disfigured in a poisoning blamed on Russian secret services, was knocked out in the first round of the election last month.

Partners in the democratic uprising in 2004, he and Tymoshenko turned against each other soon after being swept into power. Their bitter rivalry paralyzed the government for most of the past five years, and Yushchenko refused to endorse her in the second round, a decision that analysts said could have cost her the race.

Pan reported from Moscow. Special correspondent Pancake reported from Kiev.

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