KIEV // Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych's party headed towards victory in parliamentary elections, but its grip on power appeared weakened as the opposition capitalised on anger over the jailing of the president's main rival and slow reforms, preliminary election results showed yesterday.
Mr Yanukovych's Party of Regions was likely to sweep individual races for parliamentary seats across the country, but three opposition parties beat it in the proportional vote, according to early results and exit polls.
The election had already been severely compromised by the jailing of the former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko.
Opposition parties have also alleged severe violations, including vote-buying, multiple voting and non-transparent vote counting, though authorities insisted that the vote was untainted. International observers were to deliver their verdict on the fairness of the vote late last night or early today.
The West is paying close attention to the vote in the strategic former Soviet state, which lies between Russia and the European Union, and serves as a crucial conduit for transit of Russian energy supplies to many EU countries. An election deemed unfair could lead to a further freeze in Kiev's ties with the West and push it closer to Moscow.
With votes counted 40 per cent of polling stations nationwide yesterday morning, Party of Regions was ahead with 36 per cent in the proportional share of the vote, while Ms Tymoshenko's party came second with some 22 per cent of the vote, trailed by the Communists, Mr Yanukovych's traditional allies, with 15 per cent.
Another pro-western party, named Udar (Punch) led by boxing champion Vitali Klitschko won 13 per cent and the far-right Svoboda (Freedom) party had 8 per cent of the vote.
The Party of Regions was also poised to win more than half of the 225 total seats allocated in individual races, according to early results, meaning that his team was likely get a majority of votes in the 450-member parliament.
"We believe that this is an indisputable victory of the Party of Regions," Mykola Azarov, the prime minister, said on Sunday after polls closed. "Above all, it shows the people's trust to the [policy] course that is being pursued."
But with Mr Yanukovych under fire over Ms Tymoshenko's imprisonment, rampant corruption and slow reforms, the opposition made a strong showing in the proportional vote.
"This clearly shows that the people of Ukraine support the opposition, not the government," said Arseniy Yatsenyuk, an ally of Ms Tymoshenko.
The political analyst, Volodymyr Fesenko, said Mr Yanukovych's party will likely retain control over parliament after it pushed through electoral changes which distribute half of parliament seats in individual races. Mr Yanukovych loyalists are sweeping those races because of the opposition's failure to put forward joint candidates and thanks to the ruling party's allegedly unfair use of funding and other resources to boost its campaign.
"The Party of Regions won by the number of points, but the opposition scored a moral victory," Mr Fesenko said, adding that the new parliament will be less obedient to Mr Yanukovych than the current chamber.
"The balance of power may change. The monopoly on power will be harder to maintain," Mr Fesenko said.
The confident showing of the far-right Svoboda party, which had been expected to barely pass the 5 per cent vote threshold, emerged as a big surprise in the election. Svoboda, which campaigns for the preservation of the Ukrainian language and culture and strongly attacks Mr Yanukovych, is also known for xenophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric.
Analysts said, however, that the party's popularity was due more to many Ukrainians' anger with the ruling party than its vehemently nationalist views.