WATCH: Ukraine today held its first presidential election since the 2004 Orange Revolution that swept pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko to power, but which ushered in years of turmoil.
KYIV (RFE/RL) -- Exit polls from today's presidential election in Ukraine show pro-Russia opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych leading with 31.5 percent of the vote, with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko making an unexpectedly strong showing in second place with 27.2 percent.
The numbers from the authoritative National Exit Poll survey indicate Yanukovych and Tymoshenko will face each other in a runoff vote on February 7.
RFE/RL's correspondent in Kyiv, Gregory Feifer, says the exit poll numbers, if confirmed, would represent a big victory for Tymoshenko, who also has fostered closer ties with Moscow. Opinion polls ahead of the vote had put the difference between her and Yanukovych at around 10 percent. Less reliable exit polls today clung to that 10 percent figure.
A second round would likely see Tymoshenko pick up additional votes from supporters of some of the other 16 candidates in the field.
Serhiy Tihipko, a wealthy banker and former economy minister, came in third in exit polls, with 13.5 percent of the vote.
Speaking to reporters shortly after the exit polls were announced, Tymoshenko said the results virtually assure her of the presidency.
Looking confident, trying to show herself as the decisive leader that Ukrainians say they want, Tymoshenko said she would not allow the country to veer from the path it started on in 2004. She called today's vote a "renewal of democracy" and said the time has come for democratic forces to stand united and move the country toward "European civilization."
Today's poll was the first presidential election since the Orange Revolution five years ago, amid widespread disillusionment with politics.
Yanukovych's disputed victory in the 2004 presidential elections sparked the Orange Revolution street protests. His runoff victory was later annulled by the Supreme Court and current incumbent President Victor Yushchenko won in a revote.
Election officials had reported low voter turnout earlier in the day.
Our correspondent reports that more than 1 million voters were reported to be casting their ballots at home, a controversial practice Tymoshenko warned that Yanukovych was preparing to exploit for falsifying results in his native Donetsk region.
Allegations of electoral violations have already surfaced across the country. Thousands of international monitors, including some 600 observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, spread across the country to monitor the vote.
“There have been allegations of fraud, as you know. They were reported also by the media, by one or the other side," said Janez Lenarcic, the head of the OCSE’s election observation mission in Ukraine. "So far, these allegations are just allegations. They have not been substantiated to any considerable degree. But we are observing, we will be observing and we also will observe how complaints procedures will be handled by the relevant bodies, including the courts.”
Election officials refused to register more than 2,000 observers from Georgia. Yushchenko blamed the refusal on rival political forces, saying, "I can only say I'm sorry about it. Our beloved Georgia and the Georgian people are being used for manipulation in Ukraine."
Yushchenko said the election shows Ukraine is "a European country, a free nation and people, that provides for free elections."
"I wish all of you and the Ukrainian people the flowering of European elections and happiness for many years," he said.
Yushchenko has said both Yanukovych and Tymoshenko are part of a pro-Kremlin tandem that represents a real threat to Ukraine's independence.
Yanukovych's main support comes from Russian-speaking areas of the industrial east and the south.
"I will work with both Europe and Russia and with other countries of the world," he said.
Tymoshenko has portrayed herself as Ukraine's only possible savior, promising she will take Ukraine into the European Union within five years.
"Today is not just the election of a candidate but [the day when] Ukraine is choosing its future for decades," Tymoshenko said after casting her ballot in her hometown of Dnepropetrovsk.
Many Ukrainians are disillusioned by what they see as missed opportunities to reform the country after the promise of the Orange Revolution.
After casting his vote, Kyiv resident Pavel Zaharchenko said he'd voted for Tymoshenko, saying he hoped the elections would make a difference.
"We need more order, real political authority -- so that people understand what it means -- and fairness, without empty promises," he said.
Kyiv resident Svetlana Marchuk said that although she's disappointed with the government's failures over the last five years, the Orange Revolution had transformed the country.
"I believe we have a high degree of freedom of speech and democracy," she said, "but now we need the economy to improve."
Sergei, a security guard in Kyiv who declined to give his full name, said he's still undecided.
"I don't know who to vote for," he said. "I will decide once I am in the polling station."