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Exit polls announced within minutes after elections ended in Ukraine indicate the country's current and former prime ministers will emerge from a field of 18 candidates to face one another in a run-off in three weeks. Incumbent President Viktor Yushchenko appears out of the running with a reported fifth-place finish.
An exit poll conducted by Kyiv's Razumkov Center shows Viktor Yanukovych, who was accused of rigging the 2004 election, has garnered more than 31 percent of the vote. Yulia Tymoshenko, the current head of government, has more than 27 percent, a bit higher than expected. Incumbent President Viktor Yushchenko is running behind businessman Serhiy Tihipko and newcomer Arseniy Yatseniuk with six percent.
After casting his ballot, President Yushchenko, whose pre-election support numbered in the single digits, pronounced the election a success.
Mr. Yushchenko says he has no doubt this election will once again demonstrate Ukraine is a democratic European country; a free nation with free people and where free elections are ensured.
Elections officials say about a million people, roughly three percent of the electorate, cast their votes at home because they could not come to polls for health reasons.
Early reports do not indicate systemic vote fraud. There are however, numerous accounts of minor infractions in some polling stations - food handed out as bribes, campaign material displayed after Friday's midnight deadline to remove it, ballot shortages, electric blackouts, cell phone pictures taken of ballots or residents of an entire building being left off of a voter list.
The Central Election Commission authorized about 3,000 international observers from North America, Europe and former Soviet republics. The Commission made no decision about 2,000 Georgians accused by Viktor Yanukovych of seeking to disrupt the vote in his eastern Ukrainian stronghold on behalf of rival Yulia Tymoshenko. Tbilisi says its citizens came as neutral observers.
The legitimacy of the Election Commission itself could face a challenge after one of its members reached the mandatory retirement age of 65. This tips the 15-member group's political balance and could be a factor in case of any post-election disputes.
The election included Ukrainian citizens abroad, with those in Australia and the Russian Far East being the first to cast ballots. The last, Ukrainians in California who are 10 times zones west of Ukraine.
Official results are not expected until January 27. But if exit polls hold up, Viktor Yanukovych will face Yulia Tymoshenko in a runoff February 7. Analysts are predicting both candidates will mount more intense campaigns than they ran in the first round.