Opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko apparently won Ukraine's presidency Monday, but his rival, Premier Viktor Yanukovych, said he would challenge the result.
Yushchenko is ahead almost 8 percent
The beaming hero of the "orange revolution" that shook Ukraine to its core for weeks appeared in front of hordes of reporters and activists at his campaign headquarters in the early hours of Monday to claim victory.
"It has happened," he said to wild cheers and applause.
"For 14 years we have been independent, but now we are free. This is a victory for the Ukrainian people, for the Ukrainian nation," the 50-year-old former prime minister said as his audience broke into applause and chants of "Yu-shchenk-ko! Yu-shchen-ko!"
With 99.76 percent of polling precincts having reported, official results gave Yushchenko an unassailable lead of 52.07 percent to 44.13 percent for Yanukovych, equivalent to some 2.3 million votes, according to the central electoral commission. Turnout was 77.22 percent.
Yushchenko's victory marked a political watershed in a country where only last month national, television had all but banished him from the air and Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly endorsed Yanukovych as the new president.
The 54-year-old Yanukovych was officially declared winner of a Nov. 21 presidential ballot and was twice congratulated by Putin but, charging fraud, Yushchenko refused to concede and organized mass "orange revolution" protests in Kiev before the supreme court threw out the poll due to huge ballot fraud.
"Today we are turning the page on human disrespect, censorship, lies and violence," he said. "People who were dragging the country toward the abyss are today stepping into the past."
Victory for Viktor Yushchenko
After speaking at his campaign headquarters, Yushchenko returned to Kiev's central Independence Square that has become the focal point of the "orange revolution," where he told tens of thousands of cheering supporters waving orange flags, that "an independent and free Ukraine now lies before us."
He repeated his call however for his supporters to remain in the square until he is officially confirmed as the winner of the election. Throughout the night, Independence Square was again the scene of a raucous and jubilant pro-Yushchenko street party.
Yanukovych refuses to concede
Yanukovych meanwhile refused to concede and vowed to ask the supreme court to throw out official results.
"I will never acknowledge such a defeat because the constitution and human rights were violated," he said in televised remarks. "We have lost nothing. We intend to get the supreme court to review the outcome of the election and to cancel the results."
Ukrainian Prime Minister and presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovich leaves the booth after filling in his ballot for the presidential elections in Kiev, Sunday, 26 December 2004
Yanukovych (photo) charged that 4.8 million people in Ukraine did not vote due to complications and confusion arising from the new election law adopted after the contested Nov. 21 ballot. He implied that the Yushchenko campaign bore responsibility for the deaths of eight people, most of them elderly, who would previously have qualified for "home-voting" rights that were
scrapped in the new election law and only restored to them in an 11th-hour Saturday court decision.
"No victory is worth people dying," he said. "Who will accept responsibility for those deaths, I'd like to know. It is the authors of the law."
OSCE to issue election report
Some 12,500 observers from dozens of international and domestic institutions and a number of foreign governments were registered to monitor the voting, compared to the 5,000 who observed the previous runoff vote.
The Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE), which had criticized the Nov. 21 ballot as undemocratic, was to issue its report later Monday.
Apart from the national and international tensions it has generated, the Ukrainian election campaign was marked by a dioxin poisoning episode that took Yushchenko off the stump last September with a severe illness that has left his face sallow, puffy and pock-marked. Yushchenko has insisted it was an attempt to murder him. He fell ill the day after having dinner with the chief of Ukraine's SBU intelligence service, Ihor Smeshko, who has denied that he or his agency had any role in the poisoning.