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Exit Poll Shows Yushchenko in Lead

Kiev was calm but on edge Sunday as Ukrainians voted for a new president, with many expressing fears that the mood could turn violent as allegations of election violations grew.

Opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko led Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych by 45 percent to 37 percent in an exit poll conducted by a consortium of nongovernmental and polling groups released after polls closed 8 p.m. Sunday. The poll, if confirmed by official results, would mean a runoff between the two men on Nov. 21.

Yushchenko, a liberal reformer interested in pushing the country closer to Europe, was expected to mount a strong challenge to Yanukovych, who has cultivated closer ties with the Kremlin, in what has proved to be a bitterly fought campaign.

Yanukovych is the choice of outgoing President Leonid Kuchma to succeed him, and has received the implicit backing of President Vladimir Putin in several high-profile public appearances, most recently on Thursday at a parade to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Kiev's liberation from the Nazis in World War II.

The exit poll, of 20,000 people throughout the country, was tallied from polls conducted by the Democratic Initiatives, the Razumkov Center, the Socis Institute, the Kiev International Institute of Sociology and the Social Monitoring group.

In a smaller, face-to-face sample questioned by the groups, Yushchenko led Yanukovych by about 42 percent to 40 percent, in what analysts said could indicate caution by voters about revealing support for the opposition.

Earlier, Itar-Tass had reported Yanukovych as leading the vote count, citing Gennady Korzh, a Yanukovych campaign press spokesman.

The elections came after weeks of charged rhetoric from the government and the opposition. Yushchenko's Our Ukraine opposition bloc has complained of intimidation and abuses by the authorities and warned that the vote would be rigged.

Each campaign on Sunday accused the other of trying to subvert the contest.

Fears of violence were running high in Kiev on Sunday, with a heavy police and security force presence in the city center.

Opposition groups linked to Yushchenko had called mass protests outside Central Elections Commission headquarters in central Kiev for later Sunday. But fearing clashes with pro-government groups and police, Yushchenko's campaign canceled the protests, instead calling on supporters to monitor vote counting.

The authorities said that a total of 147,000 police were on duty around the country, and that thousands of additional security forces were in Kiev to cope with any demonstrations.

Police had erected metal barriers around the Central Elections Commission building, and four water cannons and three armored fighting vehicles stood ready, under green camouflage netting. A fire truck and ambulance were also nearby, and dozens of elite security troops patrolled the area. Many cars in central Kiev were stopped and checked.

As voting progressed, supporters of Yushchenko and Yanukovych traded accusations of vote-rigging and violations, and said they were holding their own parallel vote counts.

The head of Yushchenko's office in Lviv, Petro Oliynik, said via a video linkup with Yushchenko's Kiev headquarters, "Bad voter lists were the main violations in the region."

Yanukovych campaign officials called a news conference Sunday afternoon to say they had registered 500 polling violations. As many as 30,000 ballots "that wrongfully identified three 'dark- horse' candidates as removed from the race" were cast, said Stepan Gavrish, Yanukovych's representative on the Central Elections Commission.

The Central Elections Commission asked the Prosecutor General's Office to investigate the reports of candidates' names being marked as disqualified on ballots.

A total of 33,000 polling stations were open for the country's 37 million eligible voters, the commission said.

With a total of 24 candidates on the ballot, neither Yushchenko nor Yanukovych was expected to gain the 50 percent needed for a first-round victory.

(The Moscow Times 01.xi.04)

 
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