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Ukrainians begin voting in presidential election

KIEV, Jan 17 (Reuters) - Ukraine began voting for a president on Sunday in an election marked by widespread disillusionment as am economic crisis grips, but one which is crucial to its relations with Russia and place in Europe.

It is the first presidential election in the former Soviet republic of 46 million people since the so-called “Orange Revolution” mass street protests in 2004 broke the grip on power of a sleazy post-Soviet leadership.

In a historical irony, the frontrunner in Sunday’s vote is opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich, once seen as a pro-Moscow stooge, whose rigged election in 2004 sparked those protests.

Opinion polls up to the start of the year, when their publication ceased under local law, consistently put the 59-year-old Yanukovich, a towering, barrel-chested man backed by Ukraine’s wealthiest industrialists, out in front.

Behind him, the polls say, is Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a style-conscious, sharp-tongued populist who is accusing him of preparing election fraud.

Neither is expected to win an outright victory on Sunday and a second round of voting is expected on Feb. 7. Yushchenko was unlikely to win re-election, the polls showed. (Writing by Sabina Zawadzki; editing by Ralph Gowling)