The archenemy of Ukraine's pro-democracy movement won a first-place finish in the initial round of presidential voting Sunday, setting him up for a showdown with the heroine of the 2004 Orange Revolution, exit polls showed.
The surveys predicted that pro-Russian opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych will finish first in the hard-fought campaign. Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko will finish second, clearing the path for a runoff between the pair next month, polls showed.
The vote appeared to be a repudiation of the Orange revolt by voters weary of endemic corruption and economic mismanagement, though the country's leading poll predicted a closer race than expected.
The two leading candidates stood on opposite sides of the barricades during the peaceful mass demonstrations that kicked out a reputedly corrupt government in 2004. Yanukovych, then-prime minister, was a presidential candidate with the backing of the Kremlin. Tymoshenko and the Orange forces swarming the streets denounced Russian interference in his initial victory, which was eventually overturned amid allegations of fraud.
Today, both say they will abandon efforts to join NATO and pledge to repair ties to Russia, the region's dominant power.
The National Exit Poll, the country's leading poll, late Sunday had Yanukovych leading Tymoshenko by less than 5 percentage points, a far weaker advantage than he has been counting on.
The poll also showed disillusioned voters handing a humiliating defeat to current President Viktor Yushchenko, who led the Orange Revolution alongside Tymoshenko in 2004, but mustered only 6 percent of the vote in the National Exit Poll, putting him in fifth place.
Yushchenko was hospitalized with a massive dose of the chemical dioxin during the 2004 race that preceded the Orange Revolution, and his poison-scarred face became a symbol of defiance to tyranny for millions around the world. But during his five-year term he came to be seen as an ineffective leader when he failed to curb corruption and modernize Ukraine's economy.
Ukraine's currency crashed in 2008, the economy sputtered and the International Monetary Fund had to step in with a $16.4 billion (euro11.41 billion) bailout. Ukraine's gross domestic product plunged by 15 percent in 2009, according to the World Bank, which estimates that the country will see anemic growth this year.
His promises of joining NATO and the EU have also fallen flat, and Yushchenko appeared dejected in front of reporters after the exit polls were released.
"Today marks the end of Orange power," Yanukovych said in televised remarks Sunday evening. "There will be no room for (Yushchenko) in the second round. He has officially lost the faith of the people."
Whoever wins the runoff, Ukraine is likely to shift course away from Yushchenko's efforts at rapid Westernization.
According to the National Exit Poll, Tymoshenko would finish second with 27.2 percent, trailing Yanukovych's 31.5 percent. The poll is by a consortium of groups that conducted up to 13,000 interviews from outside 240 polling places. It has a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.
Other exit polls showed Tymoshenko trailing by a wider margin. According to the survey of up to 15,000 voters conducted by Ukraine's Yaremenko Institute, she got 24.8 percent of the vote, nearly ten percent behind Yanukovych's 34.7 percent. That poll had a margin of error of 2.2 percentage points and surveyed.
"Despite the great campaign of discrimination that was launched by all the oligarchs who rallied around Yanukovych, people showed their wisdom, trust and faith in me," Tymoshenko said after the vote.
Analysts said that despite her second place finish, Tymoshenko's sharp political instincts could allow her to beat Yanukovych, a former electrician who has pledged to scrap Ukraine's NATO bid and elevate Russian to the status of a second official language after Ukrainian.
"Yanukovych's voter base has been exhausted. Although it was strong and compact and never betrayed him, it did not grow," said Viktor Nebozhenko, director of the sociology institute Ukrainian Barometer. "Tymoshenko, as a great communicator, has chances to win this election."
Despite fears of rampant voter fraud ahead of Sunday's election, the Central Election Commission said the irregularities had not been widespread, and European observers agreed.
"It was a very peaceful poll," Matyas Eorsi, chairman of the observation mission from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), told the Associated Press. "An election should be exciting for the candidates and boring for the observers. So when I say it was a boring election, I say it is a good election."