Pro-West forces score narrow victory in Ukraine: exit polls

( AFP ) - Pro-Western parties in Ukraine narrowly defeated their Moscow-backed rivals in snap parliamentary elections Sunday, exit polls indicated, but the apparent victory was unlikely to end months of political unrest.

Four exit polls released after voting in the former Soviet republic gave President Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party and the allied Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc a razor-thin lead over parties backing Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.

The result meant that Tymoshenko, a fiery reformist politician, could seize the premiership from her bitter adversary Yanukovych, who is seen as being close to Ukraine's former ruler Russia.

Tymoshenko, who helped Yushchenko to power in the 2004 pro-democracy "Orange Revolution", said a new coalition government would be "announced within two days."

Before the election, both she and Yushchenko vowed to renew their alliance in a bid to overcome Yanukovych's powerful Regions Party.

Sunday's poll was the third national election for this deeply divided country of 47 million people in as many years.

A bitter power struggle between Yushchenko and Yanukovych had paralysed the country's politics for months, leading to the early election, which came just 18 months after another legislative poll.

But the tightness of the result given by exit polls indicates that tough political battles will lie ahead, analysts said. Preliminary official results were expected Monday.

Yanukovych, who opposes Yushchenko's bid to take Ukraine into NATO, was unlikely to give the " Orange" alliance an easy ride.

Yanukovych pointed out that Regions Party was still the single biggest in the new parliament and intended to launch "negotiations" of its own on forming a coalition.

"If we have to go into opposition I am sure that it will not be for long," a leading Regions Party member, Taras Chornovil, was quoted as saying by Interfax.

The Regions Party election headquarters chief also announced that supporters would gather on Kiev's Independence Square on Monday.

Ivan Presnyakov, from the International Centre for Policy Studies, predicted that court challenges to the election and infighting within the Yushchenko-Tymoshenko alliance could soon undermine the apparent victory.

"The Regions Party will be looking hard for the few hundred votes that might affect the result. If the situation remains 50-50 then there will probably be court cases," he said.

Russia saw the pro-Western "Orange Revolution" as a crushing foreign policy defeat and has had strained relations with both Yushchenko and Tymoshenko.

However Moscow's initial reaction to the election result was positive. "Naturally we will work with any government," Ambassador Viktor Chernomyrdin told AFP.

Washington, the European Union and an increasingly assertive Kremlin are closely watching this strategically placed country, which has expressed interest in joining both the European Union and NATO.

Sandwiched between Russia and the European Union, Ukraine straddles key Russian gas export routes to energy-hungry EU clients.

It is also a testing ground for Western-style economic and political reforms in the former Soviet Union, where many countries are now headed by authoritarian governments.

But the country is deeply divided between the Russian-speaking east and Ukrainian-speaking west.

Yushchenko came to prominence when he led the mass protests of the "Orange Revolution" against rigged election results handing Yanukovych the presidency.

Yushchenko won a rerun, but later fell out with Tymoshenko, firing her after a brief stint as prime minister.

He was then forced to take on Yanukovych as his premier after the Regions Party's strong showing in parliamentary elections last year -- a disastrous cohabitation that led to a series of crises.

Although some Ukrainians are fed up with the endless political wrangling, passions remain high in what is arguably the most vibrant democracy of the Russian-dominated ex-Soviet bloc.

Official results in the tense contest were not expected until later Monday, but exit polls have proved reliable in past Ukrainian elections.

A Western poll commissioned by the ICTV television station gave the combined pro-Yushchenko forces 46.5 percent of votes cast, against 43.2 percent for Yanukovych's Regions Party and all parties that would be likely to join him in a coalition.

The other polls gave similar figures.

Turnout in Sunday's election was 63 percent, the Central Electoral Commission said, citing preliminary figures.

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