Pro-Russian politician Viktor Yanukovich won the first round of presidential elections in Ukraine and was set to head for a nail-biting runoff with Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko who came in second, results showed with half the votes counted Monday.
Ukrainian opposition leader and presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych speaks to the media during his news conference in Kiev, Ukraine, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2010. (AFP Photo)
Yanukovich was about 12 points ahead of Timoshenko with 36.86 percent to her 24.31 percent, according to the results after 50.31 percent of the votes had been counted.
Third place went to ex-banker Sergiy Tigipko who had around 13 percent.
Discredited Orange Revolution hero President Viktor Yushchenko was eliminated after coming in fifth with a mere 4.87 percent of the vote.
Yanukovich was the man accused of rigging 2004 elections which sparked the Orange Revolution uprising that swept the old order from power.
Tymoshenko, a former Orange Revolution comrade of Yushchenko, subsequently fell out with the president and adopted a more pragmatic tone on relations with Russia.
As Yanukovich failed to win a majority in Sunday's first round, the election will go to a second round on February 7 with all to play for between the two old foes who have savaged each other's reputation in the campaign.
Yushchenko's miserable score was a reflection of Ukraine's frustration that the Orange Revolution failed to realise the dreams of those who protested in 2004.
Turnout was 66.68 percent, the central electoral commission said.
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"If Tymoshenko is less than 10 percent behind then her chances of winning in the second round climb sharply," said analyst Igor Zhdanov of the Open Policy think tank.
Businessman Tigipko made a late campaign surge and his electorate will now prove crucial in determining the second round outcome, as the two frontrunners bare their teeth.
"Yanukovich, who represents criminal circles, has no chance" in the second round, said the prime minister at her post-election news conference, resplendent in a pure white costume.
Her opponent snapped back that Ukrainians had voted for change and said that Tymoshenko was "in despair".
The second round promises to be a gloves-off affair and analysts have warned of the risk of the result being taken to the courts and even once more sparking street protests.
The bitter campaign has already seen the shady pasts of the candidates once again dredged up.
Yanukovich was jailed twice in the Soviet era for theft and assault, though the convictions were erased in the late 1970s. Tymoshenko herself was briefly detained in 2001 on smuggling charges that were later quashed.
The 2004 Orange Revolution raised hopes of a new era free of Kremlin influence for the country of 46 million that would set a precedent for other former Soviet states.
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But although Ukraine now boasts improved freedom of speech, steps to implement reform and end corruption were forgotten as government became paralysed in a bitter power struggle between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko.
Tymoshenko, famed for her peasant-style blonde hair braid, is seen as more in favour of EU integration than Yanukovich but has also played up her close ties to Russian strongman Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Since 2004, Yanukovich has sought to reinvent himself with the help of Western PR strategists and to show he is not a servant of the Kremlin but a defender of Ukrainian interests.
He has also sought more support in the country's Ukrainian-speaking west -- traditionally the heartland of Tymoshenko and Yushchenko supporters -- while holding on to his powerbase in the Russian-speaking east.