KIEV (Reuters) - Ukraine faces a run-off vote next month between opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich and populist Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko after an election for president produced no outright winner, exit polls showed.
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 neighbours and may help unblock frozen IMF aid for its ailing economy.
Exit polls showed Yanukovich winning the most votes, but analysts expect Tymoshenko to pick up a higher proportion of second round votes from defeated candidates and say Yanukovich may struggle to extend his appeal beyond his support base in the Russian-speaking east of the country.
A slew of exit polls showed Yanukovich, a 59-year-old former mechanic, won 31-38 percent of Sunday's vote.
Tymoshenko, 49, who helped lead the pro-Western Orange Revolution against Yanukovich's rigged 2004 presidential election victory and is most popular in the European-leaning west of the country, scored between 25 and 27 percent.
First official results, with only a fraction of votes counted, showed Yanukovich on 38 percent and Tymoshenko on 25 percent. Counting was to continue through the night.
Tymoshenko hailed the result as proof that Yanukovich had no chance in the second round, scheduled for February 7, and called for talks with the eliminated candidates.
"As of today I am ready for talks so that we can move forward with uniting the democratic forces," she told reporters.
Andrew Wilson, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the key survey was the one organised by the National Exit Poll Consortium which showed only a four-point gap between the two strongest candidates.
"Yanukovich's strategy was to knock (Tymoshenko) out in round one with a big lead," he said. "Clearly that has not paid off by any means. Most of the other candidates look like breaking in her favor. He's not got the reserves left."
Two candidates who came third and fourth, former central bank chief Sergey Tigipko and former parliament speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk, said they would not come out in support of any candidate in the second round.
An aide to Tymoshenko, a populist who amassed a fortune in her years in the gas industry, said however that her camp hoped to meet Tigipko in the next few days.
Widespread disenchantment with politics and anger over a deep economic crisis marked the vote.
Voters appear to have punished incumbent President Viktor Yushchenko, one of the architects of the Orange Revolution, for the country's recent political in-fighting.
The Western-funded National Exit Poll Consortium gave Yushchenko just 6 percent.
Both the leading candidates have pledged to seek better relations with neigbouring energy supplier Russia, in part to avoid the spats 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 attacked Yushchenko for excessively confrontational policies toward Russia and says Ukraine's real enemy is poverty.
His Party of the Regions is allied to the Kremlin's United Russia party but Yanukovich has been careful to avoid appearing as Moscow's stooge this time around.
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.
Although Tymoshenko initially had stormy relations with Russia, she has tried to patch up her links to the Kremlin of late. Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has described her as a person Moscow can do business with.
Additional reporting by Natalya Zinets, Yuri Kulikov and Pavel Polityuk; writing by Richard Balmforth, Michael Stott and Dmitry Solovyov, editing by Dominic Evans