An exit poll has predicted that opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych has been elected Ukraine's next president, with voters apparently favouring a leader who will steer the country away from the pro-Western course set by the 2004 Orange Revolution.
The National Election Poll expected the Russia-leaning Yanukovych to finish first in the runoff ballot, capturing 48.7% of the vote to 45.5% for Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, with other voters mostly choosing "Against all".
The stone-faced political leader from Ukraine's Russian-speaking east fought hard against Tymoshenko, whose impassioned leadership of the 2004 Orange protests made her an international celebrity. But today's vote appeared to be much closer than the first round on January 17, where Yanukovych had a 10 percentage point lead over Tymoshenko.
Tymoshenko has vowed to challenge a vote she claims was rigged. Yanukovych supporters have been camped out in front of the Central Election Commission headquarters in Kiev in an apparent effort to prevent Tymoshenko supporters from blockading the building.
Yanukovych has pledged to restore order and says he will try to balance ties to east and west. But he represents the hopes of many in eastern Ukraine, who feel they have been relegated to second-class status by their countrymen in western Ukraine.
Tymoshenko sought to depict herself as a populist whose appeal crossed Ukraine's east-west divide. But she bore the scars of five years of political battles with Yanukovych and her sometime Orange ally, outgoing President Viktor Yushchenko, and has struggled to cope with Ukraine's severe economic crisis.
Yanukovych was accused of massive vote fraud in the 2004 president ballot, which was thrown out by the courts. Later that year he was trounced by Orange forces in a re-vote as enemies cast him as a Kremlin lackey. But he battled back, serving for a time as prime minister under his Orange adversary, Yushchenko.
Yanukovych's rise from the political ashes came as voters said they were weary of broken promises, a dysfunctional economy and political chaos under the Orange government.