Ukrainians went to the polls Sunday, with pro-Russian forces poised to make a strong comeback in the first electoral test for the nation's feuding "orange revolution" leadership and its pro-Western stance.
Ukrainians are casting their votes Sunday for a new parliament
President Viktor Yushchenko, who has described the vote as a choice between "the past and the future," hailed it as the "first fair, democratic elections in Ukraine" and called on the bickering forces that backed him during the orange revolution to reunite after the election.
President Viktor Yushchenk with his family on polling day
"I am in a great mood, a mood that comes before victory," the president, sporting an orange tie, told reporters after voting in central Kiev near the spot from where he led the protests in late 2004 that catapulted him to power.
Acrimonious split of "orange" team
But support for the pro-Western reformer has slipped since then in the face of a sluggish economy and the acrimonious breakup of the feuding "orange" team.
Against this background of disillusionment, his Russia-friendly rival, ex-premier Viktor Yanukovych, has bounced back from his humiliating defeat in 2004 and is widely expected to get the largest number of votes in the election.
"We will have victory," said a relaxed, beaming Yanukovych, who has promised economic prosperity, stability and improved ties with Moscow during his campaign, after voting in central Kiev.
Supporters cheer Julia Tymoshenko
The last pre-election opinion polls released two weeks before the vote suggested anukovych's Regions Party would get up to 30 percent of the vote and Yushchenko's Our Ukraine up to 20 percent, while Julia Tymoshenko, the president's estranged "orange" partner, would come in third with up to 17 percent.
Russia watching poll closely
Russia and the West, which wrangled over the bitterly contested 2004 campaign, are once again keenly watching the poll in this strategic country.
While the Kremlin sees Ukraine as its historic backyard, the West has encouraged Yushchenko's drive to enter its ranks, safe from an increasingly confident and authoritarian Moscow. Ukraine is deeply split along the divide.
"The 'oranges' are hated, they haven't fulfilled the hopes of those who came out into the streets, they've done nothing," said Olexander, a taxi driver in the eastern city of Donetsk, the industrial heartland where
Russian-speaking voters complain of low wages and rising prices, and want to retain close ties to Moscow.
Supporters of the Our Ukraine party campaign wave flags
"We need Yushchenko because that's moving toward the future... and the future of Ukraine is in Europe and NATO," 43-year-old Mykola said after voting on the other side of the country in the western city of Lviv, the nationalist bastion where Ukrainian-speaking voters yearn for a clean break from the Kremlin.
The battle for seats in the legislature has been fierce, as
whoever controls parliament will have expanded powers under constitutional changes that came into force this year.
Out of the 45 parties competing, between five and nine could pass the three percent barrier needed to get into the chamber, but none is expected to get enough votes to secure a majority, forcing the winners to form a coalition.
Thus Yushchenko is facing a risky marriage of convenience with one of his two top political rivals. Joining forces with Yanukovych will slow down reforms needed for Ukraine to move toward membership in the European Union (EU) and NATO.
Reuniting with Tymoshenko risks scaring investors who are wary of her interventionist methods and strident stand on re-nationalization.
Coalition talks and subsequent negotiations on naming a new prime minister and forming the government could drag on for months. Yushchenko said that former "orange revolution" allies would start their negotiations on reuniting on Monday.
In addition to casting ballots for the legislature -- under a purely proportional system using party lists -- voters are also deciding regional and local assemblies, and municipal heads.
Major queues formed outside polling stations as voters struggled to handle up to four different ballots, some of them up to a meter long, with some waiting several hours to vote.