KIEV, Ukraine — Viktor Yanukovych, the ursine eastern Ukrainian party boss who suffered a humiliating defeat five years ago, has triumphed in a presidential election on Sunday that was surprising not so much for its outcome as for its cleanliness.
After a brutal and bruising campaign during which both sides hurled accusations of corruption, incompetence and outright lying at each other, Yanukovych held a slim margin over his challenger, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, 48.8 percent to 45.6. (Some 4.3 percent of voters exercised a purely Ukrainian option and voted "against everyone.")
It marked a breathtaking comeback — as well as a metamorphosis — for a man who it seemed would be forever labeled as the loser of the Orange Revolution.
The last time Ukrainians went to the polls to elect a leader, to succeed outgoing President Leonid Kuchma in 2004, Yanukovych was the officially anointed heir apparent. Moscow also heavily supported his candidacy, and the contest at first followed a familiar path of official ballot-stuffing and fraud to make sure Yanukovych won. But then hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets to protest the post-Soviet politics-as-usual and in support of his competitor, Viktor Yushchenko. The first results were annulled, and Yanukovych lost after a re-vote was held. It appeared that he had been relegated to the trash heap of history.
Fast forward five years. Yanukovych is not only the winner, but he has a process that international observers called an "impressive display of democratic elections" to thank for it.
"For everyone in Ukraine, this election was a victory," said Joao Soares of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Yanukovych declared victory on Sunday before the first results had come in and exit polls were placing the spread between he and Tymoshenko at between 3 and 5 percent. But his victory was not exactly a shocker. After winning a first round of voting by 10 percentage points — but lacking the 50 percent needed to win outright — Yanukovych was considered the clear frontrunner.
Nevertheless a win in the second round was far from certain. Tymoshenko is a relentless fighter. What's more, Yanukovych is viewed as an embarrassment by many Ukrainians. Although less the wooden ex-Soviet apparatchik of five years ago, he is still awkward and slow in speech, and seems to manage only slightly better in Russian than in Ukrainian (which he mastered only in recent years). According to a favorite story making the rounds, he once said that the Russian playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov was a "great Ukrainian poet."
More disturbing for many is that Yanukovych is seen as not his own man, but a marionette of eastern Ukrainian oligarchs, such as steel magnate Rinat Akhmetov, the country's richest man. (Tymoshenko to be sure has her own billionaire backers, but since she is an oligarch in her own right — the so-called gas princess — she is believed to be less beholden to them.) And he remains tainted by the Kremlin's open endorsement in the last contest. Paradoxically, the oligarchs' involvement may offset this, since they may not welcome increased business competition from the East.
Indeed, voting followed regional lines: He won in the country's industrial and predominantly Russian-speaking east and south, while she dominated in the center and west.
But Yanukovych now smiles occasionally (though it sometimes seems more of a grimace), and speaks in soundbites and talking points, thanks in part to American advisers.
In the end, Tymoshenko's position as the politician most closely associated with the country's crumbling economy did her in. And although relations with President Viktor Yushchenko, her onetime Orange Revolution ally, have become almost radioactive, she is still linked in many peoples' minds with the discredited Ukrainian leader with whom she shared a stage in 2004.
Despite Tymoshenko's considerable energy, charisma and beauty, she could not overcome the fact that many Ukrainians simply do not trust her. Now, the question hanging over Ukraine, one day after the election, is "What will Yulia do?" Will she try to strike a deal with Yanukovych to preserve some sort of grip on power, or will she ignore the OSCE's favorable report card and challenge the election results in court?
So far Tymoshenko seems to be weighing her options. On election night, she sounded a very defiant note and seemed to be gearing up for a protracted legal battle: "I ask all who hear me now — fight for every protocol, every document, every vote. Because a vote can determine Ukraine's fate."
But the next morning, she erected a wall of silence. During the day, she called two press conferences and then abruptly canceled them. Meanwhile, the Central Election Commission finished all but 0.5 percent of the vote count, confirming Yanukovych's victory.
"This is a very uncomfortable position for Tymoshenko," said Volodymyr Fesenko, director of the Penta Center for Applied Political Studies in Kiev. "She does not love to step away from power by her own volition."
Western diplomats indicate that they would like Tymoshenko to acknowledge the inevitable and concede defeat, thereby allowing Ukraine to focus on its more pressing economic problems (and help preserve the Orange Revolution's one lasting legacy, democratic elections).
"It is now time for the country's political leaders to listen to the people's verdict and make sure that the transition of power is peaceful and constructive," said the OSCE's Soares.