The former Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovich, appeared to be ahead of his rival Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in the bitterly fought presidential runoff in Ukraine on Sunday but the result was likely to be very close.

Three hours before the polling stations were to close Mr. Yanukovich was leading by four per cent, polling 49.4 per cent of the votes against 45.3 per cent for Ms. Tymoshenko, according to exit polls reported by the Echo of Moscow radio station.

Mr. Yanukovych (55) came 10 per cent ahead of Ms. Tymoshenko (49) in the first round of voting on January 17.

Both candidates vowed to improve relations with Russia, which badly soured during the presidency of Viktor Yushchenko, who was propelled into power by a West-funded “orange revolution” five years ago. Ms. Tymoshenko was the fiery spirit of the “orange revolution” but has since fallen out with her ally Mr. Yushchenko.

Ukrainian voters have grown deeply disillusioned with the “orange revolution”, giving Mr. Yushchenko a dismal 5.4 per cent in the first round of the current election.

The atmosphere in the capital Kiev was tense on Sunday, as Ms. Tymoshenko threatened to re-enact the 2004 “orange revolution” and bring her supporters onto the streets if she deemed the vote unfair. Supporters of Mr. Yanukovych set up tents outside Kiev’s Central Election Commission in preparation for possible post-election protests.

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