Ukraine Poll On Knife-Edge In Tense Ballot Count

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's election hung on a knife-edge late Monday as preliminary results threatened a dead heat and pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko ordered a probe into possible ballot fraud.

Members of the elections commission count ballot papers after the vote in Kiev.

Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, his partner in the 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution, saw their slim lead diminish rapidly as late results came in, while their arch rival, Moscow-backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, scored steady gains.

The development threatened the Orange alliance's plans to remove Yanukovych from power and replace him with the fiery reformer Tymoshenko, setting this ex-Soviet republic of 47 million people on a firmer Western course.

Yushchenko ordered a police probe into the vote count in eastern and southern Ukraine, traditionally pro-Russian strongholds of Yanukovych.

He said that results were being released too slowly and ordered "law-enforcement agencies immediately to begin an investigation."

The deputy chairman of the Central Election Commission, Andrei Magera, said the commission was "not satisfied with the current situation."

Official results based on 90.2 percent of ballots cast showed Yanukovych's Regions Party ahead with 33.49 of the vote.

Together with three smaller parties, he could theoretically form a coalition with 45.8 percent -- matching the combined total reached so far by Yushchenko's Our Ukraine and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc.

That potential dead heat meant that the ultimate fate of Ukraine's parliamentary election, the third national poll in as many years, could depend on tiny parties cast in the role of kingmaker.

However it was unsure whether one of these parties, the Socialists, would even pass the three percent barrier to be allotted parliament seats, while the slightly bigger Lytvyn Bloc has not yet promised to deal with Yanukovych.

Yanukovych, who is seen as close to the ex-Soviet republic's former ruler Russia, warned his opponents not to celebrate too soon.

"We won and I am sure that we will form the government," he said, Interfax reported.

"Nothing confirms the Orange forces' victory," he said on Channel Five television.

About 3,000 flag-waving supporters of Yanukovych's Regions Party gathered on Kiev's main Independence Square for what was billed as a victory rally.

The election was called early to put an end to a debilitating power struggle between Yushchenko and Yanukovych, who secured the premier's post after a strong performance in parliamentary elections staged just 18 months ago.

Yushchenko and Tymoshenko were at the heart of the Orange Revolution alliance, which overturned a rigged presidential election win by Yanukovych. Yushchenko triumphed in the rerun but the alliance was swiftly undone by infighting.

Its return would mark a sensational comeback based on better than expected showing by the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc on Sunday. Tymoshenko said she wanted to form a new government with Yushchenko within 48 hours.

But they had yet to set up a formal coalition and analysts cautioned that almost any twist is possible in Ukraine and that the losing parties would likely challenge the results.

The main Western monitoring group, the OSCE, gave Sunday's election a clean bill of health.

"The elections met levels of well-accepted European standards," said Adrian Severin, a European Parliament member in the observer team.

Washington, the European Union and an increasingly assertive Kremlin are all vying for influence in this strategically placed country, which has expressed interest in joining both the European Union and NATO.

Ukraine straddles key Russian gas export routes to energy-hungry EU clients.

It is also a testing ground for Western-style economic and political reforms in the former Soviet Union, where many countries are now headed by authoritarian governments.

Russia had strongly backed Yanukovych and saw the pro-Western Orange Revolution as a crushing foreign policy defeat.

Source: AFP