KIEV, UKRAINE – Opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko held a commanding lead in the presidential race with vote counting almost complete Monday morning, according to Ukraine election officials.
Several hours earlier, with exit polls showing his lead, Yushchenko claimed victory, telling supporters the country is witnessing the beginning of a new political era.
“After today, everything is going to change in the Ukraine,” he told tens of thousands of supporters who had massed in Independence Square.
“For 14 years, we were independent, but we were not free,” he said. “This is a unique, clear political victory, an elegant victory from the people who have proved their power.
“Today, the Ukrainian nation and the Ukrainian people have won. The Ukrainian people have won.”
With 96 percent of the vote counted by sunrise, Yushchenko was leading Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych 52.6 to 43.5 percent, election officials said.
Three exit polls released just after the voting ended Sunday showed Yushchenko with a 12- to 20-point lead.
Yushchenko told supporters his job would be to determine “how to bring truth into the Ukrainian government and to make sure that freedom doesn’t depend on Moscow, America or Europe. Our future depends just on ourselves.”
Many of the demonstrators were wearing the orange color of Yushchenko’s campaign. They cheered and waved flags.
Sunday’s vote was ordered by Ukraine’s Supreme Court after it threw out the results of the November 21 runoff following opposition allegations of widespread fraud. Yanukovych won the official count in the earlier vote.
At polling sites Sunday, 12,000 international observers were on hand. The election was closely watched by world leaders, as it could determine Ukraine’s relationship with Europe and Russia.
Yanukovych had the backing of Russian President Vladimir Putin, while Yushchenko has stronger ties to the West.
Also, Yushchenko’s dioxin poisoning, which disfigured his face, galvanized world attention and triggered widespread speculation that someone may have tried to kill him. The source of the poisoning has not been found.
Yushchenko’s campaign officials expressed confidence the election results could not be “stolen” this time.
In brief comments to reporters after the exit poll results were released, Yanukovych said he still believed he could win — but that if he did not, he would fight as an opposition voice in parliament.
Outgoing President Leonid Kuchma has called on whoever loses to congratulate the winner the next day to help build stability. Asked whether he would call Yushchenko if the polls prove accurate, Yanukovych said he would do so, with regret.
Although no official reports on the legitimacy of Sunday’s elections were immediately available, one top observer said he saw a “good atmosphere” while visiting of handful of the 33,000 polling sites.
“The polling stations that I have been to have been very, very orderly, well-run, no difficulties, full number of members of the polling commission, policemen discretely available,” said Bruce George, head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s International Monitoring Group.
“No trouble here. I just hope the other 33,000 are as good as this.”
Whoever wins faces the challenge of uniting the country and building stability. The country is divided geographically, with people in eastern and southern portions of the country largely supporting Yanukovych and those in other areas, including Kiev, mostly backing Yushchenko.
Amid the turmoil the followed the November 21 vote, many governmental institutions have barely functioned.
Yushchenko will also face the challenge of building a relationship with Russia.