| Yushchenko after casting his vote in Kiev. (AFP)
Kiev, Dec. 26 (Reuters): Liberal challenger Viktor Yushchenko won a re-run of Ukraine's rigged presidential election by a substantial margin, according to an exit poll published just after voting closed today.
A Yushchenko win is likely to push the ex-Soviet state, poorly managed for years but with huge economic potential, closer to Europe and, Moscow fears, further away from its traditional influence.
Yushchenko scored 56.5 per cent in the exit poll to 41.3 per cent for Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, whose victory last month was overturned by the Supreme Court. A second exit poll gave him a slightly wider margin of victory, 59.1 per cent to 38.4 per cent.
Yushchenko ' backed by hundreds of thousands of protesters who brought central Kiev to a halt for over two weeks ' claimed he was cheated of victory in the November 21 election.
The Supreme Court later agreed there had been fraud and annulled the result which had given victory to Yanukovich.
The first exit poll represented 80 per cent of the 30,000 sample conducted by the Kiev International Institute for Sociology and the Razumkov Centre. The second poll, by the Centre for Social Monitoring, surveyed 13,000 voters.
'I will win. That's 100 per cent. I'm absolutely certain,' Yushchenko, holding his youngest son in his arms, told reporters after casting his ballot in the capital.
The Russian-backed Yanukovich accuses his rival of trying to stage an 'orange coup' on behalf of foreign powers. 'I expect the Ukrainian people to make the correct choice. I voted for our future, the future of the Ukrainian people,' he said as he voted.
Turnout, just short of 55 per cent at 1300 GMT, was little changed from the two previous rounds. More than 33,000 polling stations in the country of 47 million people had remained open for 12 hours.
About 12,000 foreign observers were monitoring the vote.
A former Prime Minister and central bank governor, Yushchenko has promised to build a modern economy free of the corruption which marked the 10-year mandate of outgoing President Leonid Kuchma. The outgoing President said he hoped the campaign would now come to an end.
'Today, we will at last have a new President,' firebrand opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko said. 'Today, it will be a beginning of a new era in Ukraine.'
Yushchenko has been careful to describe neighbouring Russia ' on which Ukraine depends for energy supplies ' as a strategic partner.
He has appealed also to Russian-speaking voters in the east of the country which backs Yanukovich.