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With the official vote count still far from over, Ukraine's estranged Orange Revolution partners turned their attention Monday to coalition talks in a bid to reunite following the stunning comeback of their nemesis, pro-Russian opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych.
Exit polls showed Yanukovych's Party of the Regions taking the largest number of votes in Sunday's parliamentary election, dealing a crushing blow to President Viktor Yushchenko's pro-Western Our Ukraine party. Yushchenko's party was trailing a distant third behind his former Orange ally, Yulia Tymoshenko.
Official vote tallies were coming in slowly, and election officials said the count would stretch into Tuesday because of the 45 parties on the ballot. Some 11 hours after the polls closed, only around 10 percent of the ballots had been counted.
The Central Election Commission put Yanukovych's party ahead with 24.7 percent. As in the exit polls, Tymoshenko's bloc came in second, with 23.8 percent, and Yushchenko's third, with 17.11 percent.
Yanukovych was dominating in the Russian-speaking east and south, and Tymoshenko led in the Ukrainian-speaking west and center. Yushchenko was ahead in only two of Ukraine's 25 regions.
Yushchenko's job was not at stake, but the newly elected parliament will enjoy vast new powers under reforms that give it the right to name the prime minister and much of the Cabinet. With no party getting enough votes to dictate their will, they would need at least 226 of the 450 seats to name the prime minister, the next step will be forming a parliamentary majority.
The top two contenders for the prime minister's job now are Yanukovych, whose ballot-stuffing attempt to win the presidency in 2004 triggered the Orange Revolution, and the fiery Tymoshenko, whom Yushchenko sacked from the job in September amid a bitter falling-out. Neither is likely to be a very inviting option for Yushchenko.
"The Party of the Regions has won a convincing victory," Yanukovych said after three exit polls put his party in a comfortable first place. "We are ready to undertake responsibility for forming the Cabinet and we are calling on everyone to join us."
A Yushchenko campaign official, Roman Zvarych, said that a preliminary memorandum on building an Orange coalition could be signed Monday. But in a sign of possible trouble, Yushchenko stayed silent, and Tymoshenko noted that she called the president _ but didn't speak with him, instead leaving a message and asking for a meeting.
"We don't have another path," Tymoshenko said in remarks broadcast on Ukraine's TV5. "It's our only option."
Roman Bezsmertniy, the campaign chief for Yushchenko's party, called on Tymoshenko to take the initiative.
"The memorandum is almost agreed ... but with one correction, the defeated can't be the initiator," Bezsmertniy said early Monday. "The initiative must come from the leader who received the most votes, and that would be Bloc Yulia Tymoshenko."
Many analysts predicted the Orange Team would sign an initial unity agreement to placate their shared electorate, but that the talks _ like past attempts to reunite _ would falter once negotiations turned to who gets what position.
One exit poll surveying about 16,500 voters put Yanukovych's party at the top of the pack of 45 parties competing in the election, with over 31 percent. It was followed by Tymoshenko's bloc with about 24 percent, and Yushchenko's Our Ukraine bloc with less than 16 percent. The poll was conducted by the Democratic Initiatives, International Institute of Sociology and Razumkov Center, and its results were similar to a poll conducted by the R&B company and the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion.
Another poll, by the Ukrainian Sociological Service, gave the Party of the Regions 27.5 percent, and showed Tymoshenko's bloc garnering 21.6 percent. Our Ukraine was given 15.6 percent.
Yaroslav Davydovych, head of the Central Election Commission, said that complete preliminary results wouldn't be ready until Tuesday.
Yushchenko, who retains the right to set the nation's foreign policy and appoint the foreign and defense ministers, pledged that the nation would continue on its Westward path. Yanukovych has called for closer ties with Moscow and an end to Ukraine's bid to join NATO, but he supports European Union membership.