The outcome of a bitter election in Ukraine on Sunday was anything but clear Monday, with exit polls showing the pro-Western challenger as the winner, but official results indicating otherwise.
Around 20,000 opposition supporters gathered in Kiev
With the will of the people apparently behind him, opposition leader and presidential candidate Viktor Yuschenko urged thousands of supporters to remain on the streets until officials called the election for him.
Exit polls on Sunday indicated Yuschenko, who wants to steer the country out of Russia's shadow and towards Europe, had won 54 percent of the vote compared with the 43 percent of his pro-Russia rival, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, according to the independent Razumkov Ukrainian Center for Economic and Political Studies and the Kiev International Institute for Sociology (KMIS).
But the country's Central Election Committee said on Monday that Yanukovich held a slight lead -- 48.9 percent to 47.5 percent -- over his challenger. Election observers fear the conflicting results could spark outbreaks of violence in the Central Asian country that bridges Russia and Europe.
Tens of thousands of Yuschenko supporters had already gathered in Kiev's Independence Square overnight. Their candidate urged them to stay there as he accused outgoing president Leonid Kuchma and his designated successor, Yanukovich, of voter fraud.
"Remain where you are," said Yuschenko. "From all parts of Ukraine, on carts, cars, planes and trains tens of thousands of people are on their way here. Our action is only beginning."
Yanukovich, who has Russian President Vladimir Putin's approval, dismissed the accusations, and his campaign immediately dismissed the exit polls giving Yuschenko the lead as "inaccurate and unscientific."
A landmark election
Thirteen years after gaining independence from the Soviet Union, Sunday's runoff election in Ukraine is a landmark event that will determine whether this nation of nearly 50 million turns toward Europe or remains heavily influenced by Moscow.
Kuchma, stepping down after 10 years of often strong-armed rule over this strategic eastern European country, has warned that there would be "no revolution" after the opposition threatened mass protests.
Electoral authorities reported a turnout exceeding 76 percent.
Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko
Yushchenko (photo) had vowed to bring his supporters onto the streets Yanukovich is declared the winner. By Monday morning, the opposition campaign reported wide-spread election fraud, accusing Yankovich of ballot stuffing and allowing supporters to vote twice.
There were also reports of an assault on an opposition observer and a local campaign headquarters of Yushchenko in eastern Ukraine, while a non-government organization said that busloads of people were involved in multiple voting.
Europe vs. Russia
The run-up to the vote has left the country deeply divided, with the nationalist Ukrainian-speaking west supporting 50-year-old Yushchenko while the industrialized Russian-speaking east backs 54-year-old Yanukovich.
It has also created a clash of generations between older people who came of age during the Soviet era and feel an affinity with fellow-Slav Russia, and a new Westward-looking youth that wants Ukraine to join a modern Europe.
An armed detachment of police equipped with armored personnel carriers guarded the offices of the election commission in Kiev, which was sealed off with temporary metal barriers.
Yushchenko, accompanied by his five children and American wife, all sporting the opposition's trademark orange, was upbeat as he voted in Kiev midday.
"There will be fraud, but the scenario of victory by the government through fraud is utopian, it won't happen," he said as hundreds of people wearing orange ribbons swarmed around shouting "Yushchenko!"
The opposition leader wants to move towards membership of the European Union and the US-led NATO military alliance, while Yanukovich (photo) has promised to make Russian a second official language and allow dual citizenship.
The election has sparked intense rivalry between Washington and Moscow, with the West seeing Ukraine as a buffer with an increasingly authoritarian Russia.
US President George W. Bush has served notice to Kuchma that the United States will review its relations with Ukraine if the presidential vote is not fair.
Russia, which under Putin has worked to restore Moscow's influence in much of the former Soviet Union, is determined to keep its fellow-Slav neighbor in friendly hands.
5,000 election monitors on hand
The first round on Oct. 31, in which Yushchenko was just 156,000 votes ahead, was slammed as a "step backward" for democracy by international observers who said state media favored the official candidate.
Some 37 million people were eligible to cast ballots in the runoff election, which was being observed by nearly 5,000 international monitors.