KYIV -- With nearly all the votes counted in Ukraine, pro-Moscow Viktor Yanukovych is set to face Orange Revolution leader Yulia Tymoshenko in what analysts say will be a tough campaign ahead of an early February runoff.
With more than 97 percent of the ballots counted in preliminary results, Yanukovych led
with 35 percent of the vote, followed by Prime Minister Tymoshenko with 25 percent.
Outgoing President Viktor Yushchenko, who was swept to power in the 2004 Orange Revolution, received only around 5 percent.
Western election observers said the election was a ringing success for democracy.
"It was an election of high quality," Joao Soares of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Parliamentary Assembly said. "It offered the voters a genuine choice between candidates, and it showed significant progress over previous elections."
Observers said media came under financial pressure and criticized politicians for trying to "play with the rules not by the rules."
But Matyas Eorsi of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) praised the authorities and offered "enormous congratulations."
Both Tymoshenko and Yanukovich's campaigns have accepted the results, easing fears of a standoff.Ready For Round Two
Both sides now face the difficult task of wooing Ukrainians who backed one of the 16 losing candidates.
Political analyst Vadym Karasyov says the election results reflect Ukrainians' disillusionment by politics that have been hamstrung by bickering between Tymoshenko and her former ally, Yushchenko.
"The election was punishment for the authorities over their failure to carry out what people had expected in 2004," Karasyov told RFE/RL.
The infighting deepened even as corruption ballooned and the economy was devastated by the effects of the global financial crisis.
On Kyiv's central Khreshchyatyk street, Oleh Lukyanchenko said he didn't believe the election would change anything.
"They do everything for themselves. In the West, the state serves for the people. Here, it's difficult to believe the state would even work in the people's interests."
Regions Party chief Viktor Yanukovych (left) and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko
At Tymoshenko's campaign headquarters late on election night, she appealed to Ukrainians who had voted for other candidates, saying she would carry out what had eluded the country's Orange leaders since they came to power.
She vowed that "the democratic forces will be united."
Yanukovych, who was cast aside by the Orange Revolution five years ago, said Ukrainians' "vote for change" left him poised to win the second-round contest.
He said he was ready to include the platforms of some of the other candidates in his own ahead of the runoff.
Yanukovych, whose support base is in the industrial, largely Russian-speaking east of Ukraine, returned to an issue that helped earn him prominence there, saying that as president he would ensure the country never joined NATO.
Both Yanukovych and Tymoshenko are likely to focus on unblocking a frozen International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan to prop up its failing economy and improving ties with Russia.Seeking Broader Appeal
Backroom negotiations to win backing from the losing candidates have already begun.
Analysts say Yanukovych has less room to maneuver than Tymoshenko, and that he can't be certain any besides the small number of communist and socialist voters will join his supporters.
Aside from the intense horse trading, most expect the weeks ahead of the second round to be fraught with fraud allegations and court cases.
There's a lot at stake in the election, and not just for Ukraine's future. The country of 46 million people is sandwiched between Russia, keen to reassert its influence over former Soviet republics, and western countries that want to see democracy established in Ukraine.
Observers from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the loose group of former Soviet republics, also praised the election. Their evaluation caught many by surprise. The CIS monitors are widely believed to take their orders from the Kremlin, and their report offers more evidence the Kremlin may be prepared to improve tense relations with either leader.
Russia helped campaign for Yanukovych in 2004, which led to accusations Moscow was meddling in Ukraine's affairs.