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Observers slam Ukraine poll as ruling party nears victory

KIEV--Ukraine's ruling party was Monday set to win legislative elections against a challenge by allies of jailed ex-Premier Yulia Tymoshenko but international observers condemned the polls as a setback for its nascent democracy.

Prime Minister Mykola Azarov predicted the Regions Party would win the majority in the new parliament after Sunday's vote, defeating challengers including Tymoshenko's party and the faction of boxer Vitali Klitschko.

But in an unusually strongly worded statement, OSCE observers described the election process as a step backwards for Ukraine, tarnished by a “tilted playing field” and the imprisonment of Tymoshenko.

“Considering the abuse of power, and the excessive role of money in this election, democratic progress appears to have reversed in Ukraine,” said OSCE special coordinator Walburga Habsburg Douglas.

“One should not have to visit a prison to hear from leading political figures in the country.”

Ukraine's 2010 presidential elections, where Viktor Yanukovych defeated Tymoshenko amid disappointment over the fruits of the 2004 Orange Revolution popular uprising, had been hailed by observers as the cleanest ever in the ex-Soviet Union.

“Certain aspects of the pre-election period constituted a step backwards compared with recent national elections,” the OSCE report said.

The criticism by the OSCE is all the more bitter for Ukraine as it is due to take the chairmanship of the body in 2013.

Tymoshenko's party said it had conducted a parallel count which showed the Regions Party leading her faction by a much narrower margin of just over 4 percent, an outcome which had also been predicted by exit polls.

Regions Party Majority

Yanukovych's Regions Party has 34.4 percent of the vote against 22.4 percent for Tymoshenko's opposition party, the central election commission said,with 60 percent of precincts reporting in the proportional system that will determine half the seats in the new parliament.

The ruling party was also on course to win at least 114 seats out of the 225 that are being determined by first-past-the-post single mandate constituencies, an early analysis of the results showed.

“We are expecting that the Regions Party will take the majority in the new parliament,” Azarov said. The head of its parliamentary faction, Olexander Efremov, said he expected it would control 230 seats in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada.

“The Regions Party will have a majority either on its own or with help from MPs from the single mandate constituencies,” said Mykhailo Pogrebynsky of the Kiev institute of political research.

“This is the first time in Ukraine's history that the ruling party has won legislative elections,” he added.

The final turnout was robust at 58 percent, the central election commission said.

The Communists were polling strongly in third place with 14.8 percent. Klitschko's new UDAR (Punch) party was on 13 percent, something of a disappointment given some pre-election opinion polls had placed it in second.

The ultra-nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party was also due to break the 5-percent threshold needed to make parliament and was polling 8.7 percent, the partial results released by the election commission said.

The Tymoshenko, Klitschko and Svoboda parties are expected to form an alliance in parliament but Klitschko conceded that “in all probability the majority will belong to the ruling party.”

His party defiantly vowed in a statement to come up with a plan of action with other opposition parties “to oust the regime of Yanukovych from power and free political prisoners.”

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