KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine's parliamentary election was marked by an uneven playing field and biased media coverage that reversed many of the democratic gains the country had made earlier, international observers said Monday.
With Ukraine's top opposition leader, Yulia Tymoshenko, in jail, President Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions was poised to retain its control of parliament after Sunday's vote, according to exit polls and preliminary results.
Tymoshenko's party and two other opposition groups, however, made a strong showing and were planning to join forces to challenge Yanukovych's strong grip on power.
Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe criticized Ukraine for rolling back on democratic freedoms in the vote.
"Considering the abuse of power and the excessive role of money in this election, democratic progress appears to have reversed in Ukraine," said Walburga Habsburg Douglas, the special coordinator who led the OSCE election observation mission.
Observers cited Tymoshenko's absence from the election, the unfair use of government resources by the ruling party and tilted media coverage as the election's main problems.
With votes counted at over 50 percent of polling stations Monday, the Russia-friendly Party of Regions was ahead with 35 percent in the proportional share of the vote, while Tymoshenko's pro-Western party came in second with 22 percent. The Communists, Yanukovych's traditional allies, trailed with 15 percent.
Another pro-Western party called Udar (Punch) led by boxing champion Vitali Klitschko garnered 13 percent and the far-right Svoboda (Freedom) party had 8 percent of the vote.
The West was paying close attention to the vote in the strategic ex-Soviet state of 45 million people, which lies between Russia and the European Union and serves as a key transit nation for Russian energy supplies to many EU countries. An unfair election could lead to a further freeze in Kiev's ties with the West and push it closer to Moscow.
The Party of Regions was also to win more than half of the 225 total seats allocated in individual races, according to early results, meaning the president's team was likely to get a majority of votes in the 450-member parliament.
"This will enable us to form a majority and quickly start implementing the reforms that we started," Deputy Prime Minister Serhiy Tigipko told The Associated Press.
Yanukovych's party strongly benefited from an electoral change it pushed through last year. Under the new law, the strictly proportional electoral system has been changed into a mixed one, in which half of parliament's seats are elected based on party lists and the other half in individual races.
Yanukovych's candidates are stronger in those individual races since the opposition was fielding multiple candidates and the ruling party enjoying greater access to government funds.
However, with Yanukovych under fire over Tymoshenko's imprisonment, rampant corruption, slow reforms and a stagnant economy, the opposition made a strong showing in the proportional vote.
"This clearly shows that the people of Ukraine support the opposition, not the government," Tymoshenko ally Arseniy Yatsenyuk said.
Political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko said Yanukovych's party will likely retain control over parliament but will face a strengthened opposition.
"The Party of Region won by the number of points, but the opposition scored a moral victory," Fesenko said. "The monopoly on power will be harder to maintain."
The showing of the far-right Svoboda party, which had been expected to barely pass the 5 percent vote threshold, emerged as a big surprise.
Svoboda, which campaigns for the preservation of the Ukrainian language and culture and strongly attacks Yanukovych, is also known for xenophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric. Analysts said the party's popularity was due more to many Ukrainians' anger with the ruling party than vehemently nationalist views.