Incumbent Leonid Kuchma appears to be leading a field of 13 candidates in the first round of Ukraine's presidential election and likely will face his closest challenger, Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko, in a runoff in two weeks.

Early returns showed Kuchma leading with about 39 percent of the vote, followed by Symonenko's 21 percent--figures that closely matched the results of extensive exit polling around the country. The second-round ballot--required by law if no candidate wins 50 percent of the vote in the first round--will take place on Nov. 14, and Kuchma appears strongly positioned to secure a second five-year term.

The vote itself appeared to be relatively free of irregularities or controversy, according to Ukraine's election commission and international observers, but the campaign was marred by violence, manipulation of the broadcast media and politicization of the state bureaucracy.

Kuchma, onetime head of a Soviet nuclear missile facility, presented himself as a centrist who was best placed to secure the country's economic and political integration with the West. "I voted for a better life, for Ukraine to continue its present course," Kuchma said as he voted today. "There can be minor deviations, but the strategic course should remain unchanged."

Kuchma painted his most serious challengers as dangerous leftists who would take Ukraine--a country of about 50 million--back under the sway of Moscow and abandon the country's independence in favor of a union with Russia and Belarus. Today's presidential election was the third since Ukraine gained independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Yet under Kuchma, Ukraine seems to have grown ever more distant from even its nearest neighbors to the West, such as Poland and Hungary, never mind the European Union.

Since he took office in 1994, he has presided over economic stagnation and the entrenchment of public corruption. Gross domestic product fell by 25 percent in those five years, and his allies are alleged to have enriched themselves through state-owned enterprises. Foreign investment, never more than a trickle compared with Hungary or Poland, has fallen in the last year, and the introduction of a legislation intended to underpin free-market economics has stalled. Much of the country's rich farmland remains under inefficient collective-farm management.

Real wages have dropped steadily over that period, and the government owes hundreds of millions of dollars in back wages and pensions to workers and retirees, who are souring on the merits of democracy and the value of economic reform. "Five years and the situation has only become worse," said Viktor Mospioka, 49, as he voted in the town of Boyarka, 20 miles northeast of Kiev, the capital. "This country needs a strong master, someone who can end the bandits."

Kuchma's international reputation has been stained by a campaign that usurped the state media and tax police to the disadvantage of his opponents. "This is the most undemocratic election in the last 10 years," said Serhiy Holovaty, an independent member of parliament and a former justice minister who now heads the Ukrainian Legal Foundation. "In 1990, under [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev's perestroika [restructuring], we had more democratic elections. This is a paradox and very depressing for an independent Ukraine."

According to independent surveys, state television and private channels controlled by business tycoons loyal to Kuchma, have lined up solidly behind the incumbent while ignoring his opponents. There are few other national sources of information here; only 18 percent of Ukrainians read newspapers.

Those television outlets that dared feature other candidates were visited by tax investigators. One station, STB, found its bank accounts frozen in August after it featured opposition candidates, and the owner eventually sold his station to a Kuchma supporter. In the Crimea, a portion of Ukraine that juts into the Black Sea, the licenses of four privately owned television and radio stations were rescinded. Kuchma has denied any knowledge of underhanded campaign tactics.

Symonenko the Communist Party leader, moderated some of his positions in the campaign's closing weeks, saying he opposes restoration of a Soviet state and that he would allow small business enterprises to flourish. Strategic industries and agriculture, however, should remain in state hands, he said.

As he voted today, Symonenko declared: "I am in an excellent mood, but unfortunately the results of the election today do not depend only on the voters, but on those who are trying to use their authority to preserve this system."

In recent pre-election opinion polls, Symonenko trailed Natalia Vitrenko, a Marxist firebrand who called for restoration of Ukraine's nuclear arsenal and the banishment of economic reformers to Siberian mines. But voters apparently turned away from her hard-line positions as election day dawned, exit polls showed.

CAPTION: A farm woman fills out election papers yesterday at the designated polling station in the Ukrainian village of Petrushky--a bench in a barnyard.