Opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko celebrated his apparently decisive triumph in Ukraine's protracted presidential contest yesterday, thanking protesters who spent weeks camped out in the capital's frigid streets for securing his electoral victory and the nation's freedom.
"Now, today, the Ukrainian people have won. I congratulate you," he told a jubilant crowd in Kiev's Independence Square, the center of massive protests following the Nov. 21 presidential runoff that was annulled after fraud allegations.
"We have been independent for 14 years but we were not free," Yushchenko said. "Now we can say this is a thing of the past. Now we are facing an independent and free Ukraine."
Three separate exit polls gave him a 15 to 20 percentage point lead over Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.
But the vote count gave Yushchenko a narrower lead: With ballots from 98 percent of precincts counted by 12pm, Yushchenko was leading with 52.38 percent compared to Yanukovych's 43.83 percent.
Results were trickling in slowly from two regions in pro-Yanukovych territory in eastern Ukraine. Central Election Commission chairman Yaroslav Davydovych appealed to election workers to do their jobs.
"Put political issues aside. The state is waiting for results," he said.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, whose own accession to power on a wave of peaceful protest in November last year was an inspiration to Ukraine's opposition, congratulated Yushchenko in a Ukrainian-language message delivered over Ukrainian television.
Saakashvili, who attended law school in then-Soviet Ukraine, was apparently the first foreign leader to publicly recognize Yushchenko's victory.
Yushchenko was not taking chances. He called his supporters back out onto the square yesterday afternoon to defend the election victory, if necessary, and asked for their help in what he called the main task facing the nation: Forming a government that would be trusted.
Dozens of Ukrainians -- some decked out in Yushchenko's orange campaign color and others carrying briefcases and work-bound -- crowded around a large television screen erected on the edge of Kiev's Independence Square yesterday. As the pro-opposition channel reported the latest results, the crowd cheered and shook their fists in the air, chanting "Yu-shchen-ko! Yu-shchen-ko!" Their cheers were punctuated by blasts from car horns.
Some 12,000 foreign observers had watched Sunday's unprecedented third round to help prevent a repeat of the apparent widespread fraud on Nov. 21 that sparked massive protests after Yanukovych was declared winner.
Both campaigns complained of violations.
Yanukovych's headquarters filed numerous complaints. Mykola Melnyk, a member of the Central Election Commission, described the process as normal, and insisted: "This repeat vote was fair and honest, especially in comparison with the second round."
Monitors said they'd seen far fewer problems in this round, in which 77.22 percent of registered voters turned out.