Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich's Party of the Regions emerged as the winner of the parliamentary elections, but will probably need to forge a coalition to keep at bay the United Opposition of Yulia Tymoshenko and the new UDAR (Punch) party led by boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko.
If confirmed, the victory for the ruling Party of the Regions would cement the leadership of Yanukovich, who faces re-election in 2015.
The elections are seen as key to determine the future of EU-Ukraine relations (see background).
"It is clear the Party of the Regions has won ... These elections signal confidence in the president's policies," Prime Minister Mykola Azarov told reporters.
Partial results put the Regions in the lead, with 37% of the vote in the part of balloting conducted by party lists. The same count gave the United Opposition 21%, the Communist Party 15%, UDAR 13% and the ultra-nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) nearly 8%. The United Opposition consists of former Prime Minister Tymoshenko’s Batkivschyna (Fatherland) in coalition with the Front for Change of Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
Exit polls more favourable to opposition
Exit polls also revealed that the same five parties had crossed the 5% threshold to enter parliament, but gave significantly different results. One of them gave the Party of Regions 28%, closely followed by the United Opposition at 23%, UDAR at 14% and the Communist Party and Svoboda at 12.5% each. [more]
A senior official of the Party of Regions said he expected the party to secure two-thirds of the remaining vote in individual districts. The elections are held under a mixed system (50% under party lists and 50% under simple majority constituencies), which is believed to favour the ruling party.
A total of 5,208 candidates – 2,554 in the proportionate ballot and 2,654 in the majority ballot – took part in an election to fill 450 parliamentary seats.
Newcomers to Parliament
The strong showing by Svoboda could send shockwaves through the political landscape. Svoboda is based in the Ukrainian-speaking west.
Svoboda until now has only made waves in regional elections and its breakthrough into the parliament marks a major success for its hugely controversial policies that have drawn accusations of anti-Semitism and racism.
Israeli news media reported that Svoboda leader Oleg Tyagnybok is known for his rants against Russians, homosexuals and Jews. A report in the Israeli daily Haaretz said that several complaints have been filed against Tyagnybok on charges of incitement to violence and racist and anti-Semitic remarks.
The other newcomer in parliament will be held by Klitschko's liberal UDAR party. Klitscko said during election night that UDAR could enter in coalition with the United Opposition and excluded such union with the Party of the Regions and the Communists.
The balance appears to hang with the independent candidates, running in the one-candidate constituencies. These independent deputies would then have to decide which electoral coalition to join, with the potential to dramatically change the country’s political landscape.
If the Party of Regions does not maintain its parliamentary majority and the opposition manages to form a broad coalition, Yanukovich could face impeachment proceedings, as the opposition has vowed to unseat the leader of the ruling party.
A United Opposition official, Oleksandr Turchynov, said it was necessary to talk about the impeachment of incumbent Yanukovich and holding early presidential elections.
Ruling party to steal the election?
Brian Bonner, chief editor of the English-language Kyiv Post, warned in an op-ed that there was “great uncertainty” over how the votes would be counted and tabulated. He argued that Ukraine’s Central Election Commission (CEC) would fall short of transparency, creating opportunities for vote stealing.
Bonner quoted deputy electoral head Andriy Magera as saying the CEC website would only publish online the results of the 225 district election commissions as the law requires. But Magera added that the CEC had no plans to publish online all the results of the 33,641 polling stations which make up those aggregated regional vote counts.
Without the ability for everybody to verify the numbers from the 33,641 precinct election commissions, the district numbers could be changed – and there would be no way to catch it or confirm the official result of a particular district, Bonner argues.
Observer’s verdict yet to come
The international observers quoted so far sent a mixed message.
"The Ukrainian parliamentary elections were held in compliance with democratic norms," the head of the observation mission of the European Academy for Election Observation, Thierry Mariani, was quoted as saying.
"Everything was quiet in the country on the election day, with individual cases of technical organizational problems," he said.
However, the head of the European Network of Election Monitoring Organisations (ENEMO) mission, Peter Novotny, said: "We observed the elections in Ukraine in 2006 and 2007. It's possible to say that there were more violations in these  elections," Novotny said.
Earlier, Western officials expressed concerns over campaigning. EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and US State Secretary Hillary Clinton wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times that they were concerned about reports of the use of administrative resources to favour ruling party candidates and the difficulties several media outlets faced in carrying out independent reporting.