KIEV (AFP) – – Pro-Russia politician Viktor Yanukovich was on course Saturday to sweep the first round of Ukraine’s presidential polls, five years after vote-rigging by his supporters sparked the Orange Revolution.
Polls showed Yanukovich with a clear lead going into Sunday’s elections, albeit without the majority required to avoid a second round run-off against his main challenger, the glamorous Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
The Orange Revolution protests of late 2004 swept Ukraine’s old order from power and created hopes of a new era of prosperity and European integration for the country of 46 million people bridging the EU and Russia.
But amid grave public disillusionment after five years of botched reform and political stalemate, the Revolution’s hero, pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko, is set to be bundled out in the first round.
With Tymoshenko making much of her warm ties with Russia’s strongman Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the outcome of the February 7 run-off is already being seen as good news for the Kremlin, which cut off all business with Yushchenko.
After a frenetic campaign that saw the main protagonists exchange stinging insults, Saturday was an official “day of calm” with all campaigning banned and campaign posters removed from the streets.
Yanukovich prayed at Kiev’s millennium-old Caves Monastery, one of the most revered sites of Orthodox Christianity, declaring afterwards that he had asked for God’s help and salvation.
All the main candidates spent the final hours of legal campaigning Friday exchanging bitter insults in separate appearances on television talkshows.
Tymoshenko attacked Yanukovich’s intellectual capabilities, saying he was unable to distinguish Austria from Australia. “He just thinks that kangaroos live in both of them,” she sniped.
Yanukovich spat back with another personal attack on the prime minister saying that while “whims beautify a woman, its not so in this case.”
Yushchenko meanwhile declared that if either of the two others won, “we can say goodbye to our democracy, our independence and our sovereignty.”
Yanukovich should win around 40 percent of the vote in the first round and Tymoshenko 23 percent, according to the latest polls by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology.
But analysts believe the image-conscious prime minister — famed for her trademark hair braid — can still make up ground in the run-off.
Third place is expected to go to businessman Sergiy Tigipko who appears to have made a late surge and is given an outside chance of springing a first round upset.
With election fraud still a major concern in Ukraine, the authorities in the eastern city of Donetsk raised alarm over the sudden arrival of almost 400 Georgians in the city who they said were not accredited as observers. Related article: Pre-vote stir as Georgians flood E.Ukraine
The head of Donetsk city council Nikolai Levchenko said there was evidence that the Georgians — all male and “well built” — were aiming to carry out violations in favour of Tymoshenko.
The Georgian presidency meanwhile denied that Tbilisi was favouring any candidate.
Yushchenko won the presidency in a re-run election in December 2004 ordered by the courts after tens of thousands took to the streets to accuse Yanukovich of vote-rigging in the original polls that he won.
Yushchenko and Tymoshenko were comrades-in-arms in the Orange Revolution but later became sworn enemies, their relationship poisoned by a perennial power struggle and mutual accusations of criminal wrongdoing.
Since 2004, Yanukovich has sought to reinvent himself with the help of Western PR strategists and to show he is not a servant of the Kremlin but a defender of Ukrainian interests.
He has also sought more support in the country’s Ukrainian-speaking west — traditionally the heartland of Tymoshenko and Yushchenko supporters — while holding on to his powerbase in the Russian-speaking east.