Viktor Yanukovych, a former Prime Minister supporting close relations with Russia, won the first round of Ukraine's Saturday presidential election, according to exit polls, dpa reported.
The big business-friendly politician is likely to capture at least 31.5 per cent of the popular vote, according to a survey conducted by Ukraine's leading Razumkov Research Centre.
Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a populist politician running on an anti-corruption ticket, will receive 27.2 per cent of the popular vote, pollsters said.
A total six exit polls were conducted in the former Soviet republic. Yanukovych's probable support was estimated at between 37.6 and 31.5 per cent, and Tymoshenko's between 27 and 25.2 per cent, depending on the poll.
The two will face each other head-to-head in a mandated February 7 run-off, if official results confirm them as the top two finishers, and neither receives 50 per cent of actual ballots cast on Sunday.
Serhy Tyhipko, a banking multi-millionaire supporting market reforms, was likely to obtain 13.5 and 11.5 per cent, a strong showing for the formerly little-known politician, according to the polls.
Incumbent President Viktor Yushchenko, leader of Ukraine's pro-Democracy Orange Revolution, will obtain between 5 and 6 per cent of the popular vote, according to the polls.
"I have the feeling that the Ukrainian people want change, and very soon a new stage in the life of our country will begin," said front-runner Viktor Yanukovych, as he cast his ballot Sunday morning.
Voting during Saturday across the former Soviet republic appeared generally smooth but not without numerous glitches.
Errors in voter registration lists were reported at individual polling sites nationwide, though the mistakes appeared to affect a relative small percentage of voters, according to an Inter television news report and witnesses.
Fires were reported at three voting sites, one each in rural districts near the cities Cherkassy, Bela Tserkiv, and Luhansk.
Officials at all three locations extinguished the fires quickly to prevent damage to voting urns and ballots, and voting was proceeding normally, the Interfax news agency reported.
A single voting site, also in the suburbs of Bela Tserkiv, had not opened by midday, after a majority of voting commission members resigned their position late Saturday evening.
In the central Zhytomr province, mobile power generators had to be used at some voting stations after heavy snow and sub-zero temperatures knocked out the electricity supply. Two voting sites in the Volynsk province were without electricity until the mid- afternoon, officials from Ukraine's Ministry of Emergency Situations said.
The overwhelming majority of Ukraine's 38,000-plus voting sites opened on time and were operating normally, election officials said.
The presence of hundreds of non-registered Georgian observers sparked tensions in the east Ukrainian city Donetsk, where local officials alleged the Georgians had been sent by Tbilisi to undermine election results.
Two Georgian nationals reportedly hired by a Donetsk newspaper as temporary journalists were attacked and beaten by unknown assailants, and police detained three more on alleged public disturbance charges, Channel 5 television reported.
Turnout was somewhat lower than in previous elections, with 44 per cent of voters having cast ballots by 1400 GMT, according to the Central Election Committee. Polls were open for 12 hours, closing at 1800 GMT.
Some 36.5 million people were registered to vote for one of 18 candidates in the election. A total 3,149 foreign election observers monitored the poll, according to Central Election Committee figures.
Intial official results would be made public early Monday morning, Central Election Committee officials said.