Tymoshenko Heads Towards Victory In Ukraine Poll

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's orange leader, Yulia Tymoshenko, looked likely today to become the country's prime minister with her party winning the largest share of the votes so far counted from parliamentary elections.

Ukrainian "Orange" leader Yulia Tymoshenko

With 62% of the results of yesterday's election in, Ms Tymoshenko's party had won 33.15% of the vote, ahead of the current prime minister, Viktor Yanukovich, whose Party of the Regions had 31.02%, Ukraine's central election commission said.

Two exit polls predicted that Mr Yanukovich's party would gain the largest share of the vote and he insisted today it would still form the next government.

However, Ms Tymoshenko is likely to return to power at the head of an orange coalition with Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine's pro-western president, whose Our Ukraine bloc had won 15.54% of the votes counted.

The interim results suggest a remarkable comeback for the charismatic Ms Tymoshenko, who was sacked as prime minister in 2005 by President Yushchenko.

The two former allies, who led Ukraine's 2004 orange revolution, were reconciled before yesterday's election.

Last night Ms Tymoshenko called the result a "wonderful victory". During a party at the Hyatt hotel in the capital, Kiev, she said: "The victory for democratic forces is final. We will work to carry on the ideas of the orange revolution."

Ms Tymoshenko said she would approach the president today to discuss forming a new government.

"In one or two days we will announce the coalition," she said. "In a matter of weeks we will hold our first government news conference."

Its priorities would include reforming Ukraine's visa regime, joining the World Trade Organisation and maintaining good relations with Russia, she said.

Yuriy Lutsenko, the leader of Mr Yushchenko's party, said it was ready to back Ms Tymoshenko as prime minister.

Mr Yanukovich dismissed the orange declaration of victory as groundless. He said his party would be declared the winner when votes from eastern Ukraine, where it traditionally scores well, were counted.

In a statement issued as the count proceeded, he said: "Orange supporters have made premature conclusions and are striving to divide the country and its people even further."

Electoral officials said the count was proceeding slowly in the industrial, pro-Russian eastern region.

A senior ally of Ms Tymoshenko said the prime minister's team was conspiring to cheat in its eastern strongholds.

"We will challenge the results in areas where there will be an attempt at vote-rigging," said Oleksander Turchinov. A presidential aide also expressed concern at the count.

Despite all sides hinting at electoral fraud, there seems little doubt that Ukraine is back in the hands of progressive pro-western parties.

This is unlikely to please Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, who last year turned off Ukraine's gas supply. Ms Tymoshenko is likely to have irked the Kremlin further by taking a congratulatory telephone call last night from Georgia's pro-western president, Mikheil Saakashvili.

Ms Tymoshenko said that under her leadership Ukraine would have "well-balanced and friendly relations" with Russia. It would also ensure the proper supply of natural gas to Ukraine and Europe, she said.

The Russian ambassador to Ukraine, Viktor Chernomyrdin, said today that Moscow would work with any coalition.

"We have worked with Yanukovich's party, with Our Ukraine, with Tymoshenko when she was a premier. All characters are well known to us and we know pretty well what they want," he told the Itar-Tass news agency.

Natalya Shapovalova, a researcher at Kiev's International Centre for Policy Studies, warned that disagreements were likely between the coalition allies over policy.

About 63% of Ukraine's 37.5 million eligible voters cast ballots, according to the official results. The Communists have won 5% of the votes counted so far, followed by the party led by former parliament speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn with just over 4%.

The latest results suggest the Socialists could miss out on any seats, just falling below the 3% threshold.

Oleg Kileiko, a 46-year-old businessman who voted for the president's bloc, said: "I'm sure that Yushchenko and Yulia [Tymoshenko] won't repeat their mistakes. I want to live in Europe, and only the Orange forces can take us there."

But some voters expressed frustration at the hyperactive pace of the country's election cycle. Ukrainians went to the polls last year. "I'm fed up with constant elections," said Valentina Kirpichenko, 80.

She described all politicians as crooks. "They take all the good bits of meat out of the borsch," she said.

Ukraine has been paralysed by a power struggle between President Viktor Yushchenko and the prime minister, Viktor Yanukovich.

In April Mr Yanukovich persuaded 11 deputies from the pro-presidential Our Ukraine party to join his ruling coalition. Critics claim the MPs were bribed.

The manoeuvre brought Mr Yanukovich close to the two-thirds majority needed to veto any presidential decree. The president responded by dissolving parliament.

Source: Guardian Unlimited