Ukraine's ruling party was set for victory in legislative polls, comfortably ahead of the party of ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko, whose jailing sparked Western concerns of foul play, early official results showed Monday.
With ballots counted from 14.6 percent of polling booths following Sunday's vote, the Regions Party of President Viktor Yanukovych was leading with 38.8 percent of the votes cast with Tymoshenko's Fatherland alliance well back on 20 percent, according to the preliminary figures from the electoral commission.
The elections for the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada chamber of parliament were a huge test for Ukraine's fragile democracy and already overshadowed by the imprisonment of Tymoshenko, who has now spent more than a year in jail for abuse of power while in office.
These early official figures differed greatly from Ukraine's longest-running exit poll, by the Democratic Initiative Foundation, which put the Regions Party in the lead but much more narrowly, with 28 percent of the vote against 25 percent for the Fatherland Alliance. Four other exit polls gave similar projections.
After the exit polls were published, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov congratulated the ruling party on its "victory".
"We think that the Regions Party will have a majority," he told a news conference late Sunday.
However Oleksandr Turchynov, deputy leader of Tymoshenko's party, said the voting "showed the people's lack of support" for the government.
His party and other Ukrainian observers said there had been cases of electoral fraud, including the buying of votes. The opposition fears more fraudulent practices during the vote count.
Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) observers are due to give their verdict on the electoral process at 1230 GMT Monday.
The partial official results showed the Communists in third place with 15.6 percent of the vote and the new UDAR (Punch) party of world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, marking its breakthrough on the national political scene, on a smaller than expected 12 percent.
The vote shares are difficult to interpret, as half the seats on the Rada will be awarded based on a proportional system but the other 225 will be given based on first-past-the-post single mandate constituencies.
Further complicating the issue is the probability that five parties will break the 5 percent threshold for entering the new parliament, raising the prospect of political alliances.
The ultra-nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party which, according to critics, is a far-right force with a track record of racist rhetoric, won 6.7 percent of the votes counted, far less than the 12.3 percent predicted by the exit polls.
Klitschko said on national television that he had hoped his party would have picked up more votes but added that it was ready to form an alliance in parliament with the Tymoshenko forces and Svoboda.
He also blamed the disappointing result on dirty politics, saying that the "number of violations in the final week had exceeded even what we had expected".
Respected political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko said while the Regions Party would fall short of an overall majority, it should be able to form one with the help of independent but loyal candidates from the single-mandate constituencies.
"Thus it seems the question of the majority is almost decided," the director of the Penta Research Institute said on Channel One television.
The elections were the first big vote in Ukraine -- wedged between the European Union and Russia and still undecided about whose alliance it values most -- since 2004 Orange Revolution co-leader Tymoshenko lost a close presidential ballot to Yanukovych in early 2010.
As ever defiant, Tymoshenko issued a statement from detention calling on Ukraine to oust Yanukovych from power.
"Every one of us has to fight this dictatorship the best they can. Your mass turnout can help overcome ballot rigging," she said. "This will be your personal contribution to the removal of Yanukovych from power."
Tymoshenko, who is currently outside of prison receiving treatment in hospital, voted while lying down in bed in the presence of two international observers.
Western nations fear the October 2011 abuse of power conviction for Tymoshenko is retribution by the president and the European Union has largely shunned Yanukovych in recent months.
Concerns that two years of Yanukovych in power have sidelined Ukraine from its democratic course prompted US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to issue a rare joint appeal to the ruling elite to ensure democratic polls.
"Today's parliamentary vote is an important test for democracy and the rule of law," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle added in a message on Sunday.
A big loser in the polls appears to be the recently-retired football star Andriy Shevchenko who had astonished his fans by becoming a leading figure in the Ukraine Forward! party of former Tymoshenko ally Natalya Korolevska.
According to the exit poll, it won only 1.6 percent of the vote, leaving the former AC Milan star's political future uncertain.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]