Pro-Western Candidate Has Narrow Lead in Ukraine's Election

By Sergei Blagov | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Moscow ( - A pro-Western candidate has a narrow lead after the final count in the first round of Ukraine's presidential election. But the race is being contested by two front runners with significantly different world views.

Opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko won 39.87 percent of the vote against 39.32 percent for pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovich, the current prime minister, according to official results announced Wednesday for the Oct. 31 ballot. No other candidate won more than six percent.

With neither contender enjoying a simple majority of votes, the two now face a run-off on Nov. 21.

The final count came as a surprise because with most ballot papers counted last week, Yanukovich was ahead.

Despite the small size of Yushchenko's lead, the turnaround gives him an important morale boost, which analysts believe could influence swing voters in the run-off.

Despite opposition criticism, Russia made little effort to hide its support for Yanukovich, a favorite of both the Kremlin and Ukraine's outgoing president, Leonid Kuchma.

Earlier this week, Moscow agreed to allow Ukrainian citizens to travel freely inside Russia for 90 days, a move that will please Ukrainians who visit the neighboring country in search of better-paying jobs.

Lifting of the restrictions is regarded as yet another attempt by Moscow to boost Yanukovich's campaign.

The election illustrated deep divisions between the Russian-speaking, industrialized east and the nationalist, pro-Western west.

Residents of eastern Ukraine, who suffered most from the Soviet Union's collapse, tend to support greater integration with Russia and supported Yanukovich in large numbers

Yanukovich has pledged that, as president, he would make Russian the second official
language. He also suggested shelving the country's plans to join both the European Union and NATO.

Yushchenko, by contrast, wants to boost Ukraine's ties with the EU and NATO, and was overwhelmingly supported by voters in western Ukraine.

But although Yushchenko is perceived as a pro-U.S. candidate he, like his opponent, has indicated that he would withdraw Ukraine's troops from the coalition in Iraq.

The campaign was marred by allegations of "dirty tricks," including claims by Yushchenko supporters that the candidate was poisoned. The authorities said no evidence of this had been found.

Poll observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said the election failed to meet international standards.

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