KIEV Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko will face each other in a run-off presidential election on February 7 and official results from Sunday's first round suggest a close contest ahead.
The election will define how Ukraine, a former Soviet republic of 46 million people wedged between the European Union and Russia, handles relations with its powerful neighbors, and may help unblock frozen IMF aid for its ailing economy.
With 95 percent of ballots counted from Sunday's poll, Yanukovich held a strong lead with 35.42 percent, well below the more than 50 percent needed for outright victory, the Central Election Commission said. Tymoshenko had 24.95 percent.
The results set up what could be a close February 7 contest. Analysts say Tymoshenko should pick up more votes from defeated first round candidates, while Yanukovich will have to fight hard to extend his appeal beyond his support base in the Russian-speaking east of the country.
Tymoshenko, 49, helped lead the Orange Revolution against Yanukovich's rigged 2004 presidential election victory and is most popular in the European-leaning west of the country.
She hailed the voting pattern as proof that Yanukovich, a 59-year-old former mechanic, had no chance in the second round and immediately began wooing eliminated candidates.
"Tymoshenko did probably better than expected, and is probably the most likely to eventually win when you look at where the votes from the other candidates are likely to go to," said Joanna Gorska, deputy head of Eurasia Forecasting, Exclusive Analysis Ltd.
The votes of supporters of former central bank chief Sergey Tigipko who was in 3rd place with around 13 percent of the vote, according to results, was important to watch, Gorska said.
He, like 4th-placed former foreign minister Arseniy Yatseniuk, has been cool to overtures from the Tymoshenko camp. But he is an independent candidate with no party structure, so his supporters are free to vote for whom they wish.
Traders of the hryvnia currency took the election in their stride and said the market would be calm because the results of the poll were expected. A holiday in the United States would also dampen the volume of trades, dealers said.
The hryvnia was unchanged from Friday's level of 8.075-8.175/$. The central bank offered to sell dollars on Monday -- as it had done last week -- at 8.01/$.
Tymoshenko rushed to Luhansk in the east of the country after oxygen tanks exploded in a hospital, her press service said. At least three people were killed, emergency officials said. Earlier, officials had said five died.
International election monitors, including a large party from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, praised the conduct of the election.
In a statement, the OSCE said the election had been "of high quality" and showed significant progress on previous polls in the ex-Soviet state.
But it said the law on electoral procedure had to be clarified. A last-minute court ruling on home voting and "unsubstantiated" accusations of large-scale fraud had shaken public confidence, it said.
Tymoshenko, a sharp-tongued populist, had been particularly strident in allegations before the vote that the Yanukovich camp planned massive electoral fraud.
Voters punished incumbent President Viktor Yushchenko, one of the architects of the Orange Revolution, for political in-fighting. Election results gave him around 5-6 percent.
Both leading candidates have pledged to seek better relations with neighboring energy supplier Russia, in part to avoid the rows of recent years which led to supply cut-offs affecting parts of Europe.
Yanukovich has called for a strong, independent Ukraine following a neutral path and not joining NATO or any other bloc. He accused Yushchenko of excessively confrontational policies toward Russia, and said Ukraine's real enemy was poverty.
He was tarnished by a scandal in 2004, when he initially claimed victory in an election tainted by allegations of fraud and was subsequently swept aside by the Orange Revolution that brought Yushchenko to power.
Although Tymoshenko initially had stormy relations with Russia, she has tried to patch up her links with the Kremlin.
Analysts said that a Tymoshenko victory in February may be a more favorable outcome for the economy in that it would likely lead to a quicker resumption of the IMF bail-out program.
The Fund broke off its $16.4 billion program to Ukraine because Kiev breached pledges to control the budget deficit.
Analysts said if Yanukovich triumphed in February there would almost certainly be a new parliamentary election which would only delay action to get the country back on to its feet.
"If Tymoshenko wins, you are probably likely to see stability return faster because she already has a more dominant position in parliament," Gorska said.