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Ukrainian Exit Polls: Yushchenko Has Commanding Lead

Early exit polls in Ukraine's presidential election give pro-reform opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko a commanding lead over his rival, pro-Russia Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. By the time polls closed Sunday, millions of voters had cast ballots for the third time to elect a new president to replace outgoing President Leonid Kuchma.

Early exit polls in Ukraine's presidential run-off election show opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko is in the lead by at least 18 percentage points, garnering 56 to 58 percent of the vote - to Mr. Yanukovych's 38 to 41 percent.

Mr. Yushchenko, who brought his three young daughters into the polling booth as he cast his ballot in Kiev, said he was certain Sunday's vote would be a victory for democracy in Ukraine.

After the polls closed some 12 hours later, one of his top aides, Yulia Timoshenko, appeared on Ukraine's independent television to reassure voters. Ms. Timoshenko said pro-government supporters have nothing to fear from a Yushchenko presidency. She says his camp will not be vindictive.

Tens-of-thousands of Yushchenko supporters streamed into Kiev's Central Independence Square late Sunday, as their candidate had urged. The square is the site of the recent mass opposition street protests and many are expected to stay in the streets until Mr. Yushchenko's victory is secured.

Addressing reporters immediately after the polls closed, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, said many people were unable to vote this round because of last-minute changes in the electoral law. Mr. Yanukovych said all the electoral changes were unconstitutional.

Mr. Yanukovych has said he needs to see the results of the elections before deciding whether to file another legal appeal. His first appeal, filed after last month's invalidated presidential run-offs, was never taken up by the Supreme Court.

The new chairman of Ukraine's Central Election Commission, Yaroslav Davydovych, said Sunday's voting proceeded normally with no major violations reported. Election commission officials report that turn-out among the country's 37 million registered voters reached about 55 percent mid-way through the elections with about two-thirds of precincts reporting.

Earlier in the day, outgoing President Leonid Kuchma [made the sign of the cross] before placing his vote in the ballot box for what he said he hoped would be the last time to vote in this bitterly contested election.

Mr. Kuchma also says the loser of the elections should congratulate the winner when the official results are known to begin the process of national healing.

Ukraine has been racked by political turmoil following the November 21 runoff, which was marred by fraud and, eventually invalidated by the Supreme Court.

Numerous electoral and constitutional changes have since been enacted in order to prevent cheating. A record number of foreign and local observers monitored Sunday's balloting.