Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych took the most votes in the first round of the nation’s presidential election and will face the prime minister in a runoff vote in three weeks, an exit poll shows.
Yanukovych, 59, won 31.5 percent, not enough for a first- round victory, according to the exit poll of 12,349 voters nationwide conducted by a group of three research organizations as of 6 p.m. in Kiev. Premier Yulia Timoshenko had 27.2 percent, and will also take part in the Feb. 7 second round. Incumbent Viktor Yushchenko got 6 percent, losing his bid for re-election. The margin of error was 1.3 percent.
The election, held five years after Yushchenko beat Moscow- backed Yanukovych to office during the Orange Revolution, ends Yushchenko’s dream of leading Ukraine into the European Union and NATO. Still, the legacy of the Orange Revolution may trip up Yanukovych again as voters turn to Timoshenko, who stood with Yushchenko during the massive street demonstrations. This time around, Yanukovych and Timoshenko both promise closer trade ties with the EU and improved relations with Russia.
“Timoshenko has the chance to win the runoff as people who supported candidates linked to the Orange Revolution such as incumbent Viktor Yushchenko are potential voters for her,” said Yuriy Yakymenko, an analyst at Kiev-based Razumkov Center for Economic and Political Studies.
Preliminary turnout at 8 p.m. was 67 percent, the Central Election Commission said on its Web site.
The exit poll results “show that Ukraine has not changed its road, which we started in 2004,” Timoshenko said at a press conference in Kiev. “I understand all the people who voted” for candidates linked to the Orange Revolution “and I will ensure the country develops as you want. Ukraine will be a democratic, independent European state.”
Another exit poll, conducted by Ukrainian TV channel ICTV together with London-based GFK NOP gave Yanukovych 35.06 percent, while Timoshenko was backed by 25.72 percent.
“Today, is the last day of the Orange Revolution Team ruling as Yanukovych leads,” said Hanna Herman, a close ally of Yanukovych, at a press conference.
Under Yushchenko, Ukraine attracted $36 billion in foreign direct investment from the start of his presidency through November 2009. FDI totaled $5.7 billion between 1999 and 2004.
The country also won membership in the World Trade Organization and the European Union declared Ukraine a market economy. Unemployment also fell to 6.9 percent in 2008 from 9.2 percent in 2004, using International Labor Organization standards, Ukrainian state data shows.
Still, bickering between Yushchenko and Timoshenko several months after the 2004 revolution disappointed voters, clearing the way for Yanukovych’s party to win parliamentary elections in 2006.
Yanukovych took the post of the prime minister, though disputes with Yushchenko led to early elections in 2007, allowing Orange allies to reunite. Timoshenko became premier again in December 2007. Since then, the country has been locked in a political stalemate because of disputes between three politicians.
Political instability complicated Ukraine’s fight with the global credit crunch.
The country faces its worst recession in at least 15 years, with gross domestic product plummeting a record 20.3 percent in the first quarter of 2009, 17.8 percent in the second and 15.9 in the third.
Ukraine was forced to line up a $16.4 billion International Monetary Fund bailout loan in late 2008 as the global credit crisis cut demand for its exports, dried up investment and shaken currency.
Its cooperation with the Washington-based lender is now stalled because of political infighting and the government’s failure to cut spending.
Ukraine’s relations with Russia deteriorated after 2004 as it officially backed Yanukovych then and opposed Yushchenko’s plan to join NATO. Russia cut off gas supplies to Ukraine twice since 2006 because of price disputes, affecting the European Union. Ukraine depends on Russia for more than 50 percent of its gas needs, while ships 80 percent of Russian fuel to Europe.
Ukraine one-year credit-default swaps, the highest worldwide, will probably fall as the Yushchenko era ends and the prospects grow about improved relations with Russia and the International Monetary Fund, Commerzbank AG said in a research note on Jan. 15.
The cost to insure against non-payment by Ukraine’s government for one year has tumbled more than 4,600 basis points from a record in March to 1,411 basis points.