* Partial results put Yanukovich party in lead
* OSCE team criticises jailing of rival Tymoshenko
* Nationalists and Klitschko party revitalise opposition
By Richard Balmforth
KIEV, Oct 29 Ukrainian President Victor
Yanukovich's party was on course on Monday to secure a new
parliamentary majority, but international monitors condemned the
election as flawed and said the country had taken a step back
under his leadership.
Exit polls and partial results from Sunday's vote showed
Yanukovich's Party of the Regions would, with help from
long-time allies, win more than half the seats in the 450-member
assembly after boosting public sector wages and welfare handouts
to win over disillusioned voters in its traditional power bases.
Far-right nationalists and a new liberal party led by world
heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko also did well.
But a monitoring team from the 56-nation Organisation for
Security and Cooperation in Europe, which sent more than 600
observers, criticised the way the vote had been conducted and
the imprisonment of Yanukovich's rival, Yulia Tymoshenko.
"Certain aspects of the pre-election period constituted a
step backwards compared with recent national elections," said
the OSCE - meaning a decline since Yanukovich was elected in
February 2010 in a poll judged fair by Western governments.
With exit polls and partial results indicating victory,
Yanukovich seems set to use the Regions' good result to cement
his leadership before seeking a second five-year term in 2015.
Sunday's vote also threw up a new, potentially awkward,
opposition line-up in parliament bringing in the Svoboda
nationalists for the first time and Klitschko's liberal UDAR.
But with important policy differences among them it is
unclear whether opposition forces can hold together enough in
the fickle world of Ukrainian politics to trouble Yanukovich,
whose presidential powers are greater than those of parliament.
Judging by comments from his lieutenants, he is likely to
take the election outcome as a mandate to press ahead with
policies which largely favour the big business industrialists
who back him and a coterie of trusted associates and family.
These have implications for his relations with the West and
Ukraine's former Soviet master, Moscow.
Under his leadership, Ukraine, the second most populous of
the former Soviet states and a major exporter of steel and
grain, has become more isolated politically on the international
stage than it has been for years.
He is at odds with the United States and the European Union
over Tymoshenko, and does not see eye to eye with Russia, which
has turned a deaf ear to Kiev's calls for cheaper gas.
The government is also blamed for not stamping out
corruption and has backed off from painful reforms that could
secure much-needed lending from the International Monetary Fund
(IMF) to shore up the economy.
But the West at the same time does not want to alienate
Yanukovich and push him towards Moscow's embrace.
The opposition says Yanukovich's rule is marred by deepening
cronyism and an increasingly authoritarian style.
The OSCE, handing down its verdict on the election, said the
Regions party misused state resources in campaigning. There had
been a lack of transparency in the way parties were financed in
the campaign and an absence of balanced media coverage.
The inability of Tymoshenko to run as a candidate had also
"negatively affected" the election process, it said. She was
jailed for seven years last year for abuse of office over a gas
deal she struck with Russia when she was prime minister in 2009.
Yanukovich's prime minister, Mykola Azarov, said the result
showed confidence in the president's policies. Brushing off
international criticism, he said: "To assert that the elections
were not transparent, is to say that white is black."
Partial results from the Central Election Commission showed
the Regions winning 116 of 225 constituencies; with a projected
vote of 32 percent in party-list voting for the other half of
the legislature, that would give it 196 seats.
With support from allies such as the communists and
independents, the Regions appear certain to reach the 226 seats
needed to form a majority.
The main, united opposition bloc, which includes
Tymoshenko's Batkivshchyna (Fatherland), was in second place on
the party-list vote and leading in 44 individual districts.
The Regions appeared to have fared well despite the
government's unpopularity and Yanukovich's authoritarian image.
Many voters had made clear they were frustrated with the
performance of the established political parties over the past
few years. Corruption is a big concern in Ukraine and many of
the 46 million Ukrainians face economic hardship.
SECRET OF SUCCESS
The Regions' success was due in part to increased state
handouts and promises to enhance the status of the Russian
language - an important pledge for Russian-speaking voters in
the president's eastern home region and power base, who fear
being at a disadvantage to native speakers of Ukrainian.
The introduction of constituency voting also favoured
Regions candidates, who could draw on state resources.
A big surprise came from the nationalist Svoboda (Freedom)
party which, according to partial results, won almost 9 percent
in the party-list voting. This means the movement, which has
links with foreign far-right groups like France's National Front
and is accused of anti-Semitism and homophobia, will have
significant representation in parliament for the first time.
The unexpectedly strong showing by Svoboda - which is based
in the Ukrainian-speaking west, pursues a strongly Ukrainian
nationalist agenda and opposes attempts by the Regions to
promote the use of Russian language - bolstered the ranks of an
opposition which has been weakened by Tymoshenko's jailing.
The other new opposition wild card in parliament will be
held by UDAR. Led by boxer Klitschko, under an acronym meaning
"punch", the party was in fourth place behind the Regions,
communists and the opposition bloc that includes Batkivshchyna.
Klitschko, the two-metre (6-foot-7)-tall WBC heavyweight
champion, will now enter parliament at the head of his new party
and could be a towering force in the assembly.
He has ruled out any post-election coalition with Yanukovich
and says his party will team up with Arseny Yatsenyuk, who leads
the united opposition in Tymoshenko's absence, as well as with
other opposition groups, including Svoboda, headed by
43-year-old surgeon Oleh Tyahnybok.
But though all the opposition parties have attacked
Yanukovich over corruption and cronyism, it is not a foregone
conclusion that they can work together in parliament despite
pledging to do so.