KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine’s election commission released a partial vote count Monday showing gruff opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych and glamorous Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko on course to compete in next month’s final round of the presidential elections.
With about 70 percent of ballots from Sunday’s vote counted, Yanukovych had 36.2 percent while Tymoshenko was second on 24.6 percent, with the 16 other candidates trailing.
Exit polls predicted similar results, though one suggested that the race between the leaders will tighten as counting proceeds. Only the two top finishers are eligible for the runoff.
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 is a heroine of the 2004 pro-Western Orange Revolution and has criticized what she called Russia’s imperial ambitions. But in the past year she has reached an accord with Moscow on energy and security issues.
After the vote Sunday, Tymoshenko thanked supporters for ignoring attacks against her. “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,” she said.
Despite warnings of large-scale election fraud in the days leading up to Sunday’s vote, officials and election observers said the ballot seemed fair and orderly.
Andrei Magera, deputy head of the Ukrainian Central Election Commission, said there was no evidence of voter intimidation or organized fraud. “There was nothing similar to mass actions that took place in the year of 2004 when voters with absentee ballots had been carried all over Ukraine by buses,” he said.
Matyas Eorsi, chairman of the observation mission from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), called it “a very peaceful poll.”
“An election should be exciting for the candidates and boring for the observers,” he said. “So when I say it was a boring election, I say it is a good election.”
President Viktor Yushchenko, who led the Orange Revolution alongside Tymoshenko in 2004, trailed in the polls with just over 5 percent.
Following a fraud-marred ballot five years ago, Yushchenko beat Yanukovych in a court-ordered revote.
Yushchenko’s win was hailed in the West as a victory by democratic forces over the cynical veterans of Ukraine’s Soviet regime. In Moscow, many saw it as part of a Western plot to surround and weaken Russia.
Yanukovych seemed elated by his victory over Yushchenko, his old rival, on Sunday. “Today marks the end of Orange power,” he said. “There will be no room for (Yushchenko) in the second round. He has officially lost the faith of the people.”
After his election, Yushchenko became embroiled in political skirmishing that paralyzed the government and he failed to push through many of his promised reforms.
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.
The next Ukrainian president will likely concentrate on consolidating power and shoring up the economy, and will certainly be more accommodating to Moscow, the region’s traditional dominant power.
Some analysts said that despite Tymoshenko’s second place finish, her sharp political instincts give her the edge in the runoff vote.
“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.”
Associated Press Writer Simon Shuster contributed to this report.