Ukraine's presidential election went down to the wire yesterday with neither the Western-leaning candidate nor his pro-Russia chief rival managing to grab a decisive lead in the crucial weekend vote.
The poll pit the former Soviet republic's prime minister and supporter of closer ties with Moscow, Viktor Yanukovich, against opposition leader and backer of closer relations with the West, Viktor Yushchenko.
Although Yushchenko held a slim lead in three of five exit polls published after Sunday's vote, Yanukovich was ahead in the vote count, with more than 80 percent of ballots counted.
The partial results showed Yanukovich with 41.43 percent of the popular vote to Yushchenko's 37.92 percent, after 84.32 percent of votes had been counted. Turnout was at a record 75 percent.
Yushchenko's supporters planned a massive demonstration in support of their candidate for yesterday in central Kiev, with more than half a million people registered to attend.
The initial results made it practically certain that the two Viktors will now head into a Nov. 21 showdown, in what could amount to a geopolitical referendum on the future of the nation of 48 million people.
Outgoing President Leonid Kuchma will keep hold of the reins of power until then.
Sunday's vote capped a campaign fraught with intrigue, accusations from both main camps of cheating and one charge of attempted assassination by poisoning, unusual even compared to the heated polls in other post-Soviet states.
Washington and Europe have tacitly supported Yushchenko's campaign, while Moscow has thrown its weight behind Yanukovich. The US State Department threatened to take "measures" against Ukraine if the vote is found to have been rigged in Yanukovich's favor, while Russian President Vladimir Putin took the unprecedented step of spending three days at the prime minister's side in Kiev last week.
The European Parliament has described the poll as a "moment of truth" for democracy in the country after a decade of rule under Kuchma, whose record on reform and human rights has been mixed at best.
Analysts have said that a loss for Yanukovich would deliver a blow to the prestige of Putin, who has been trying to see allies secure leadership posts in former Soviet republics.
"The entire Russian government, starting with the president, will look like fools if Yushchenko wins by a large margin," Russian political analyst Leonid Radzikhovsky told Moscow Echo radio.
Observers registered a series of violations that could impact the poll's results, including incidents of students being bused in to Kiev to vote for a single candidate, and dozens of incidents across Ukraine when people were turned away because their names did not appear on the voter lists.
The stakes could hardly be higher for a nation which has served as an uneasy bridge between Russia and Europe during Kuchma's tenure.