Old-time rivals to meet in presidential runoff in Ukraine

Old-time rivals to meet in presidential runoff in Ukraine

Opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych and current Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko are heading for a runoff on February 7 in Ukraine's presidential vote set to decide the future of a country torn between traditional ties with Russia and a post-Soviet drive westward, RIA Novosti reported.

Sunday's presidential vote was the first since the 2004 "orange revolution" protests that brought to power the pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko. He has been determined to set the ex-Soviet state on a path to join NATO and the EU, and has been involved in bitter energy rows with Moscow, which affected supplies to Europe, and a dispute over a key Russian naval base in the Crimea.

With 60% of ballots counted, Yanukovych leads with 36.38% of votes followed by Tymoshenko on 24.41%. Neither candidate will secure the 50% of votes needed for outright victory.

Yanukovych, 59, enjoys support of mainly Russian-speaking eastern regions. Tymoshenko, 49, a leader of the "orange revolution" protests amid election fraud accusations against Yanukovych, is popular in the country's west.

Both of them pledged to improve ties with Russia, also soured over Kiev's support for Georgia in the August 2008 war over South Ossetia.

Yanukovych has vowed that Ukraine will remain a nonaligned country.

"Ukraine will never be a bloc state and will join no military alliance. This is the Ukrainian people's position, which we should respect," the leader of the Party of Regions said.

Both Tymoshenko and Yanukovych were reported to be in talks with other candidates, including banker Serhiy Tyhypko, who is third with 13.22% of the vote, to win their voters' support in the runoff.

Tyhypko has said he will not support a candidate in the runoff.

President Yushchenko, now a fierce critic of former ally Tymoshenko, has about 5% of the vote.

Election authorities said on Monday citing preliminary figures that turnout was above 66%, which is well below the figure reported after the 2004 presidential polls.

Yanukovych and Tymoshenko have pledged to protest against the results if they lose the vote, echoing the 2004 mass street protests.

Observers, however, said a repeat of rallies is unlikely as Ukrainians have grown tired of political infighting aggravated by the economic crisis.

The Central Election Commission said no serious violations were reported during the election.

"There were cases when voters were not included in voters' lists," the commission's deputy head Andriy Mahera said. He added that none of the reported violations could be compared to the large-scale fraud that took place during the 2004 vote.

Yanukovych supporters are meanwhile gathering in front of the Central Election Commission building in central Kiev to "protect the people's choice."

A stage set up the day before has two giant screens showing national flags and slogans reading "We will defend the people's choice," and "We will defend the election commission against pressure from the authorities."

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