Early results in this so-called beauty-vs.-the-beast contest indicated yesterday he had narrowly defeated Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the golden-haired populist heroine of the Orange Revolution that overturned Yanukovych's rigged victory back in 2004.
Yanukovych, a former mechanical engineer whose support base is in the Russian-speaking East and South, had 49.6 per cent of the vote, based on the results from 52 per cent of the polling stations. Tymoshenko, often dubbed "Europe's Evita," had 44.7 per cent.
Ukrainians' disillusionment over their corrupt and always-bickering political leaders may have helped defeat Tymoshenko, since the partial results showed 4.5 per cent of voters chose the "against all" option on the ballot.
"The abstainers decided the election; Tymoshenko could have closed the gap with their votes," noted European Council on Foreign Relations analyst Andrew Wilson wrote in his blog.
Yanukovych's apparent victory, if confirmed by official results today and if endorsed by foreign observers, puts the country's fate in the hands of a man backed by shadowy billionaires from eastern Ukraine.
"Yanukovych's victory is a triumph for Ukraine's powerful business clans," said David Marples, who teaches at the University of Alberta's Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies.
"Ukraine's deeply ingrained corruption will likely remain, from top to bottom of society, led by a somewhat unsavoury figure with a checkered past."
Yanukovych gave a victory speech yesterday that promised economic reforms for a country in economic crisis and reliant on an International Monetary Fund bailout.
But Tymoshenko, who has warned repeatedly that her opponent was engaged in 2004-style fraud, refused to concede defeat.
"It is too early to draw conclusions," she said.
Yanukovych, 59, was labelled a "Moscow Stooge" in 2004 thanks to Russian leader Vladimir Putin's overt support for his candidacy.
But he has undergone an image makeover under the tutelage of Paul Manafort, a high-priced American lobbyist and consultant to Republican presidents and presidential candidates including Gerald Ford, both Bushes, and John McCain.
While Manafort could do little with his candidate's painfully slow speaking style or his frequent gaffes, he has brilliantly kept Yanukovych out of situations like the scheduled TV debate with the much smoother Tymoshenko last week.
The University of Alberta's Marples said the prospects of membership in the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization appear "firmly closed," resulting in the new regime seeking "to continue profitable trade with Europe, while improving relations with Russia."
He also said Yanukovych will probably ease Moscow's obsessive concern about the security of its Black Sea fleet by indicating he'll extend the lease, something Yushchenko vehemently opposed.
While Tymoshenko is also beholden to billionaire oligarchs who funded her more than $150-million U.S. election campaign, Yanukovych is viewed by many as a puppet of eastern Ukraine's powerful clans.
His biggest backer is shadowy multibillionaire Rinat Akhmetov, the country's richest man and one of the wealthiest in the world.
Yanukovych, who grew up poor and was jailed twice in his youth for violent crimes, is a former mechanical engineer who became a source of ridicule several years ago by misspelling the word "professor" on his resumé.