KIEV, Ukraine - Elated by the early returns but wary of last-minute subterfuge, tens of thousands of supporters of presidential candidate Viktor A. Yushchenko gathered in Independence Square last night to sing, dance and wait for word of their candidate's fate.
The official results weren't expected until today. But Yushchenko declared victory early this morning, telling supporters, "Today, Ukraine is beginning a new political life."
With ballots from just over 87 percent of precincts counted, Yushchenko was leading this morning with 54 percent compared with Prime Minister Viktor F. Yanukovych's 42 percent. Yushchenko did not appear to be making inroads in his opponent's territory so much as solidifying his dominance in places that had already supported him.
Yushchenko favors integration into Europe and NATO. His rival, Yanukovych, pledged closer ties to Moscow.
All the exit polls released last night - including those conducted by Russian agencies - showed Yushchenko leading Yanukovych, by an average of 18 percentage points. During the Nov. 21 vote, Ukrainian and western polls predicted Yushchenko would win, while Russian surveys gave Yanukovych the lead.
Yanukovych was declared the winner of last month's contest, but the victory was canceled by the Supreme Court, which ruled that the vote was invalidated by systematic voter fraud.
The marathon election campaign was also marked by the poisoning of Yushchenko with dioxin in September, and 17 days of mass protests in Kiev after the flawed vote in which tens of thousands of demonstrators blockaded government buildings.
The nonviolent uprising brought accusations last week from Russian President Vladimir V. Putin that Western governments are fomenting revolutions across the former Soviet Union.
In the sprawling tent camp on Kreshchatik Street, which protesters erected the day after last month's disputed vote, no one was talking about leaving.
"We're absolutely sure there is a 100 percent victory, but we're staying here," said Ivan Husak, 32, a construction worker from Lviv. Oleg Piven, 41, a retired major in the Ukrainian military and former helicopter pilot, said the current government couldn't be trusted to recognize a Yushchenko victory.
"Public support is necessary until the courts recognize the victory," Piven said.
Rock singers entertained the crowd through the night, as thousands waited for the final results.
More than 12,000 foreign observers were among those monitoring the vote at Ukraine's more than 32,000 polling places. These monitors are expected to start making their formal reports today.
If he wins, Yushchenko - a dapper economist and former central bank chief - plans to build trade with Europe. But no Ukrainian president can afford to cut ties with Russia, which ships billions of dollars' worth of gas and oil to European markets through Ukraine and has major investments in Ukraine's heavy industries.
Sign of defeat
Sounding as if he were preparing for defeat, Yanukovych said last night he was ready to become the leader of the opposition in parliament. The former governor of the Donbass region, in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, told reporters he would teach Yushchenko "what opposition means."
Yanukovych alleged human rights violations, because of anti-fraud reforms adopted Dec. 8 restricting absentee ballots and voting at home by the elderly and disabled.
The home voting by invalids was repealed Saturday by the Ukrainian Constitutional Court, but local election officials apparently struggled to carry out the court ruling.
Yanukovych pointed out that one older woman had died at a polling place. He blamed her death on the restrictions.
"Let this be on the consciences of those who organized this," he said.
About 10 a.m., 25 jump-suited members of the militant pro-Yushchenko group Pora, or "It's Time," lined up outside the entrance to the Central Electoral Commission here.
The unofficial guards did not try to stop anyone from entering the fenced compound, guarded on the inside by police. But their presence created an air of menace.
Last night, the Central Electoral Commission reported that it had received complaints from Yanukovych about election law violations. But the commission said it had no evidence of systematic vote-rigging.
The state-funded Ukrainian Institute of Social Research and Social Monitoring Center, gave Yushchenko a 58 percent-34 percent lead, with a margin of error of 2 percentage points. The Moscow-based Interfax wire service poll showed Yushchenko winning, 53-41.
According to these polls, Ukrainian speakers in western Ukraine remained solidly behind Yushchenko, while Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine again overwhelmingly support Yanukovych.
Analysts said the key to yesterday's vote lay in central and southern Ukraine - including the Black Sea port of Odessa - with their mix of Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking residents. These regions appear to have shifted significantly toward Yushchenko after the Nov. 21 vote.
Yushchenko voted near his apartment, a short walk from Kiev's Independence Square, the epicenter of the protests. "What we did during the last 30 days was a tribute to our ancestors," he told reporters. "I know they are looking at us from heaven, and they are applauding."
Departing President Leonid D. Kuchma emerged from a Kiev voting booth and said he hoped Ukraine's electoral struggle was finally over. "I made the sign of the cross after I voted," Kuchma told reporters. "I prayed it would be for the last time."
The flamboyant opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, dressed in an orange shirt printed with the word "revolution" on the sleeves, said yesterday that Kuchma had to answer for crimes committed during his reign, including the unsolved murder of opposition journalist Georgi Gongadze.
On Krishchatik Street, demonstrators had set up a tent as a shrine to Gongadze. "Georgi, You are With Us," said a sign above the entrance. Inside, icons of saints flanked a picture of the journalist.
Author Grigory Kutsenko of Kiev, a Soviet-era dissident who was imprisoned in the gulag, said his mother was weary of marking ballots. "Every Sunday I have to vote. I'm sick and tired of it," she told him.
But Kutsenko, a Yushchenko supporter, said the long, tumultuous election season was a small price to pay for a chance to erase the Soviet legacy of corruption and authoritarianism. "This is just the desire of people to live in an open, honest state that obeys the law," he said.
Klara Liashenko of Lviv, in western Ukraine, came to Kiev Saturday with her daughter - an anti-globalization activist who is making a documentary film about the struggle here.
Liashenko said both candidates were the tools of powerful interest groups. But she said people were weary of the status quo, represented by Yanukovych. "They're just tired of the bureaucracy; they're tired of hard living," she said. "They just can't take it anymore."
But what Yushchenko calls his "elegant" revolution is only the start of the post-Kuchma power struggle in Ukraine, one prominent political analyst said yesterday.
No 'revolution' seen
"I don't see any revolution," said Vladimir Malinkovich, a researcher with the International Institute for Humanities and Political Studies in Kiev. "Because a revolution changes the political order, and perhaps the social and economic order as well."
Yushchenko's campaign, he said, is filled with former Cabinet ministers and members of parliament rather than outsiders. And the opposition leader's presidential bid has been bankrolled by perhaps a dozen Ukrainian industrial tycoons.
All Yushchenko's supporters will demand payback for their support after the elections, he predicted. "There aren't enough ministerial posts to go around," Malinkovich said.
Parliament agreed to a series of constitutional changes Dec. 8 that shifted significant power from Ukraine's strong president to parliament.
The balance of power in parliament, controlled by Kuchma and other regional groups of business tycoons, is not expected to change until new elections are held in 2006.
Some Yushchenko supporters criticized the reforms, saying they were designed to ensure that Kuchma maintains control of the government.
Yushchenko said yesterday he may seek to have the changes repealed, according to the Interfax wire service.
Vladimir Devakov of Kiev, who works for a nonpartisan religious group, said the revolution has inspired cultural if not political change. Until recent months, he said, many Ukrainians considered themselves Russians living in an arbitrarily-created post-Soviet state.
"We were so close that we didn't think about Russian-Ukrainian relations," he said. "Now the distinctions are clear and growing."