KIEV, Ukraine – International monitors on Monday hailed Ukraine's presidential election as transparent and honest, bolstering opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych's claim of victory and leaving Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in a strategic bind.
Tymoshenko, who was the charismatic catalyst of the 2004 Orange Revolution mass protests, had said she would call supporters into the streets if she deemed Sunday's election fraudulent. But although she has signaled she will challenge the outcome in the courts, she issued no protest call on Monday and canceled two planned news conferences as she apparently weighed her options.
International observers' criticism of the 2004 presidential election lent significant weight to the Orange protests, which ended with a court-ordered revote in which Yanukovych was defeated by Viktor Yushchenko. This time, the observers' imprimatur could undermine any call for protest.
Yanukovych had a lead of 3.2 percentage points, with 99.44 of the ballots counted. When all the votes have been counted, the Central Elections Commission will release the preliminary tally.
A Yanukovych victory would close a chapter in the country's political history by ousting the pro-Western leadership of the past five years, which foundered due to internal divisions, fierce opposition from Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine and the collapse of the economy.
As president, Yanukovych would try to balance relations with Moscow against Europe, tilting to Moscow where his Orange Revolution predecessors tilted West. But his narrow mandate, Ukraine's deeply divided society and moribund economy will limit his ability to implement desperately needed political reforms.
The international monitors issued a joint statement saying "the professional, transparent and honest voting and counting should serve as a solid foundation for a peaceful transition of power."
Joao Soares — head of the observation mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Parliamentary Assembly — said the vote was an impressive display of a democratic election and a victory for the people of Ukraine. In comments apparently directed at Tymoshenko, he urged Ukraine's politicians to heed the official vote tally.
"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," Soares said.
High turnout and the efficient performance of election officials dispelled fears of large-scale fraud, the observers said.
The election commission projected the turnout among Ukraine's 37 million voters at just under 70 percent, 3.2 percentage points higher than the first-round vote on Jan. 17, in which 18 candidates competed. Yanukovych won that round with a 10 percentage point lead.
"The Ukrainian people, who have shown their commitment to a democratic electoral process, now deserve a peaceful transition of power," said Assen Agov, head of the delegation of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.
Yanukovych has claimed victory and his team kicked off festivities by calling on the prime minister to acknowledge defeat.
"She should remember her own democratic slogans and recognize the results of the elections," said Anna German, deputy chairwoman of Yanukovych's Party of Regions.
Around 5,000 Yanukovych supporters assembled Monday morning near a stage in Kiev adorned with the slogan "Ukrainians for a Fair Election," claiming to defend the results of the election.
Supporters danced in heavy winter coats in front of the Central Election Commission as a series of daylong concerts got under way, despite frigid temperatures and flurries of snow. Hundreds waved Yanukovych's signature blue campaign pennants and some draped flags over their shoulders, readily admitting they were there to forestall attempts by the Tymoshenko camp to organize large-scale protests.
But Tymoshenko has not called her supporters out onto the streets. Even the lone tent that had stood outside the Central Election Commission on Friday was gone.
Tymoshenko and outgoing Yushchenko fell out after leading the Orange Revolution protests, and the bad blood between them has caused political gridlock in recent years and deepened Ukraine's economic malaise; Yushchenko got only about 6 percent of the vote in the first round of the election.
Most voters are now keen to see a united leadership take power.
"It finally seems like these five years of pointless bickering are coming to an end," said Vladislav Kuprinchuk, 63, a retired veteran who wore a plastic Yanukovych poncho at Monday's rally. "I came out here to make sure Yulia doesn't steal our victory."