KIEV, Ukraine - Opposition leader Viktor Yanukoyvch, the chief target of the 2004 Orange Revolution, took a big lead in the first round of Ukraine's presidential election over his rival, Orange heroine and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, officials said Monday.
But that advantage after Sunday's vote could prove illusory when the two go head-to-head in the final round of voting Feb. 7. Many expect a close race between the two candidates, who are likely to follow the same line on Ukraine's most important policy issue - relations with Russia.
Analysts say Yanukovych's preliminary 10 point lead - with 35 per cent of Sunday's vote compared with 25 per cent for Tymoshenko - is misleading because she is likely to pick up most of the first-round votes cast for the 16 other candidates who ran. Almost 67 per cent of Ukraine's 36.5 million or so eligible voters cast ballots, and 99.5 per cent of votes had been counted by late Monday.
Some analysts say Tymoshenko's political skills and sharp instincts will give her the edge in the runoff.
"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 a chance to win this election."
It's rare for a woman to hold high political office in the former Soviet Union, and Tymoshenko has her detractors. But many Ukrainian women see her as a role model, even if they don't always admire her political moves.
Some polls show Tymoshenko trailing Yanukovych, but analysts say much of her support comes from rural areas, where voters are harder for surveys to reach.
Analyst Oleksandr Dergachev said "high levels of distrust" have prevented Yanukovych from getting more than 40 per cent of the vote in nationwide elections. "Yanukovych will find it harder to expand the electorate than Tymoshenko," he said.
The Orange Revolution five years ago, triggered by allegations of presidential election fraud against Yanukovych, led a court to order a re-vote that Orange leader Viktor Yushchenko then won.
At the time, many Orange protesters had dreamed of breaking Ukraine's historical dependence on Moscow and becoming part of Western Europe. But they've had several rude awakenings, in the form of a battle with Russia over energy prices, the 2008 Russia-Georgia war and one of the worst recessions in Europe.
The events seemed to demonstrate that Ukraine cannot manage on its own without support from Russia, its historic ally and biggest trading partner. And despite their policy and personality differences, Tymoshenko and Yanukovych seem to share a similar view of how to deal with Moscow.
For one thing, the prospect of NATO membership, to which Moscow had objected, is out, and there will be not likely be any more Kremlin-bashing in Kyiv. Ukraine's relations with Georgia, which had also sought more Western support, will now be less important as they were under Yushchenko, who won just 5.5 per cent of Sunday's vote.
The blunt-spoken Yanukovych, a former electrician and factory manager, has pledged to scrap Ukraine's NATO bid and elevate Russian to the status of a second official language, alongside Ukrainian.
Tymoshenko, a firebrand of the 2004 pro-Western Orange Revolution, has also made peace with the Kremlin on energy and security issues over the past year.
Officials and international election observers said Sunday's ballot was fair and orderly. The head of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's mission said it "was overall the same as polling in any other democratic country."
"It is the first time since independence (in 1991) that it has been possible to say this," Matyas Eorsi said. "Ukraine deserves enormous congratulations."
Joao Soares, president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, said the election was "very promising" for Ukraine's democratic future. The European Union said the vote was held in a peaceful atmosphere after a "vigorous campaign which presented the voters with a genuine choice."
Yanukovych said Monday that 70 per cent of the first-round votes had gone to candidates outside the current government.
"People are tired of empty promises that are not supported by real cases, people are tired of the constant intrigue," he said. "People voted for change."
And he said Tymoshenko had a lot to answer for.
"She often makes statements that are untrue," he said, without giving any examples. "This is her style."
On Sunday, Yanukovych celebrated turning the tables on Yushchenko, saying: "He has officially lost the faith of the people."
Yushchenko's presidency was marked by political skirmishing that paralyzed government and prevented any of his promised reforms from being passed.
Ukraine's currency crashed in 2008, the economy sputtered and the International Monetary Fund had to step in with a $16.4 billion (C11.4 billion) bailout. GDP plunged 15 per cent in 2009, according to the World Bank, which predicted only anemic growth this year.
The next president, however, will have to resolve the compromises made on the office when its powers were given to parliament as part of a a power-sharing deal, analysts said.
"Either Tymoshenko or Yanukovych will be forced to reform the Constitution to have real authority to overcome the crisis," Razumkov Center analyst Yury Yakimenko said. And if Yanukovych wins, the challenge will be even tougher, as he would have to work with Tymoshenko as his prime minister.
"This will lead to a new political war and early parliamentary elections," Yakimenko predicted.