International observers to the parliamentary elections in Ukraine have accused the authorities of “abuse of power” and “excessive role of money” in the campaign, while the EU issued a more carefully worded statement.

Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich's party appeared on course to secure a new parliamentary majority. Nearly complete results on Monday (29 October) showed his Party of Regions leading with more than 32%.

Projections say that with results from voting in single-mandate precincts, and expected support from allies such as the Communist Party, Yanukovich’s party appears likely to lead a majority in the 450-seat parliament.

The partial results show the United Opposition of jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko in second place, with around 24%. The Communist Party was third with about 14%, followed by the UDAR (PuncH0 Party of boxing champion Vitaly Klichko at around 13%, and the ultra-nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party at around 9%.

Many Ukrainians doubt that the vote count was fair. The daily Kyiv Post reported on a symbolic case where apparently the authorities tried to give advantage to a candidate of the Party of Regions during the vote tabulation.

A source in Ukraine told EurActiv that an excess of bulletins had been printed, and that in many cases the authorities used the extra ballots to stuff ballot boxes.

Tymoshenko announces hunger strike

In a written statement, Tymoshenko denounced the elections as “falsified from start to finish” and announced a hunger strike.

A monitoring team from Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which sent more than 600 observers, criticised the way the vote had been conducted and the imprisonment of Tymoshenko.

OSCE mission coordinator Walburga Habsburg Douglas said Sunday's vote constituted "a step backwards".

"Considering the abuse of power and an excessive role of money in this election, democratic progress appears to have reversed in Ukraine," Douglas was quoted as saying. Douglas put much of the blame on the ruling party, which she said used state funds to finance its campaign activities while also controlling the flow of information.

As EurActiv reported earlier, civil society organisations in Ukraine exposed cases in which local authorities – oblast and regional state administration heads – endorsed candidates or political parties during work hours, using staff and office resources to assist campaigns.

"I do not think that voters should face harassment or intimidation from employers or the government. And one should not have to go to a prison to hear from leading political figures in this country," Douglas said.

US State Department spokesman Mark Toner called the elections “a step backwards”, and cited the use of government resources to help ruling party candidates, the hampering of media access for opposition candidates, and the harassment of opposition candidates.

Toner said Washington was “troubled by allegations of fraud and falsification in the voting process and tabulation.”

‘A mixed picture’

EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and Štefan Füle, the enlargement commission, were more diplomatic in a joint statement, speaking of a “mixed picture” rather than outright regress.

“The turnout shows the Ukrainian citizens’ attachment to a democratic and pluralistic society. … We take full note of the International Observation Mission’s preliminary findings on the conduct of the elections which presents a mixed picture with several shortcomings, and of the difficulties faced by the local electoral observers.

“The final assessment will also depend on the post-electoral developments, which we will watch closely. It is therefore particularly important that the Ukrainian authorities ensure a proper conduct in the coming stages of the electoral process, notably as regards the remaining vote count, tabulation of results and following up on possible electoral complaints.”

Ashton and Füle noted that prison sentences had prevented opposition representatives such as Tymoshenko and her ally Yuri Lutsenko from standing in the parliamentary elections, and called on the authorities “to address this matter and take further steps to reform the judiciary to avoid their recurrence”.

It remains unclear how the election will affect EU-Ukraine relations, which have been backsliding since December 2011 (see background).

“Our engagement with Ukraine towards political association and economic integration remains based on its respect for our common values. We are committed to continue to work towards using the full potential of our relations for the benefit of the citizens of Ukraine and the EU,” Ashton and Füle said in the statement.

Jewish concerns

The emergence of the ultra-nationalistic and anti-Semitic Svoboda party to the parliament for the first time was watched with concern by Jewish groups.

Svoboda was formed in 2004, growing out of a movement that until then had called itself the Social-National party of Ukraine.   

The party has organised a march against the thousands of Hassidic Jews who arrive every year for a pilgrimage at the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav in the southern Ukrainian town of Uman.

“We are not intending to interfere in internal Ukraine affairs and its voters' decisions, but we are very concerned about the safety of Jews in Ukraine and throughout Europe in light of growing anti-Semitic movements in Europe," Rabbi Menachem Margolin, general director of the European Jewish Association, said in a statement.