KIEV (Reuters) - Votes from the presidential election were being recounted in parts of Ukraine on Wednesday as defeated candidate Yulia Tymoshenko disputed the victory of opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich.
Yanukovich called on his opponent to resign the premiership and said that while relations with Russia and countries of the former Soviet Union would be a priority for his government, Ukraine needed help "from East and West" to stabilize its economy and restructure its debt.
The legal challenge mounted by the charismatic prime minister to the result of Sunday's vote has raised political tension and could deny the former Soviet republic, battered by economic crisis, a swift return to stability.
Tymoshenko herself stayed out of the public eye for a third straight day, cancelling a weekly government meeting and traveling east to Zaporizhya to attend a funeral.
Yanukovich, a burly 59-year-old ex-mechanic, received a psychological boost from news of the final preliminary count by the Central Election Commission.
With all votes counted, he ended with 48.95 percent to Tymoshenko's 45.47 percent -- a lead of 3.48 percentage points or some 888,000 votes.
Some Tymoshenko loyalists have privately said they doubt whether they can prove a case of fraud against Yanukovich, and one of her lawmakers predicted she would resign in the next few days.
"I can make a prediction that it will be a statement accepting the results of the election and crossing to opposition political activity," Tymoshenko party deputy Svyatoslav Oliynyk told a panel discussion in Kiev.
But the legal challenge launched on Tuesday was being followed up. Interfax-Ukraine news agency said a recount was under way in one part of Crimea, and the Tymoshenko team said they also wanted recounts in Donetsk and Luhansk -- all Yanukovich strongholds.
Tymoshenko loyalist Andriy Senchenko told parliament that in Crimea, "We have facts that confirm that about 200,000 votes accorded to Mr. Yanukovich, were not his."
The political confusion risks setting back a resumption of International Monetary Fund lending which last year was crucial for the state finances. Bond yields jumped at the prospect of such a delay, but the hryvnia currency has traded flat.
A senior central bank official said the bank was willing to intervene on the currency market should any broad swings appear in the hryvnia-dollar rate.
Outside the Central Election Commission building in Kiev a few hundred supporters of the opposition leader rallied, chanting: "Ya-nu-ko-vich!"
But though tensions remained high, there was no sign of people taking to the streets in support of the fiery premier, co-architect of the Orange Revolution that overturned Yanukovich's victory in a rigged election in 2004.
A key date is February 17 when official results are to be declared and a president-elect will be named. Any proof of cheating assembled by the Tymoshenko camp has to go before a higher court in the few days following that date.
There is much at stake for the stylish 49-year-old, whose challenge to Yanukovich flies in the face of endorsements by the international community. The United States, Russia and international monitors have hailed the election as democratic.
Yanukovich's camp has denied there is any legal basis for challenging the result and has ruled out any third round vote as happened in 2004. That vote resulted in defeat for Yanukovich at the hands of current President Viktor Yushchenko.
The official result signaled a comeback for Yanukovich, who tapped widespread disillusionment with the Orange democracy movement that delivered years of infighting instead of prosperity and stability.
His party is an ally of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's United Russia and he is expected to tilt Ukraine more toward Russia, ending a deep chill in relations under the pro-Western Yushchenko.
But he is in the uncomfortable position of having won by only a narrow margin and without getting more than half the votes. There is a subdued air at his Regions Party headquarters and observers said it was significant he did not officially congratulate his campaign team on the outcome.
If Tymosehnko does not quit, a vote of no confidence in her can be expected in parliament, possibly this week.
Ukraine has been battered by economic crisis and badly needs to restart talks with the IMF on a $16.4 billion bail-out package derailed by broken promises of fiscal restraint.