Voters in Ukraine are casting their ballots for a new parliament at the midterm point in President Viktor Yanukovych's presidency in a vote that is expected to shape his prospects for reelection in two years' time.
Yanukovych, whose ruling Party of Regions is expected to hold on to its majority in the 450-seat parliament, or Verkhovna Rada, urged voters to vote for "stability."
"It is very important for each voter who takes part in the election today to take a responsible decision," Yanukovych said after casting his ballot. "I've voted for stability, the economic development of Ukraine, and for our people to live better."
By midafternoon, officials said turnout was around 45 percent. No minimum turnout is required for the elections to be valid.
Meanwhile, as voting continued, opposition political groups and leaders reported that their websites had come under attack by hackers.
Former Defense Minister Anatoly Hrytsenko, who heads the Civic Position party, wrote on Facebook that his personal website, as well as those of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and United Opposition movement leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk, were experiencing denial-of-servics (DDOS) attacks.
The ruling party's press office also announced that its website was experiencing hacker attacks. The Party of Regions statement charged that "information terrorists" were trying to restrict the access of Ukrainian citizens to "reliable and competent" information about the ongoing parliamentary elections.
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov told journalists in Kyiv that voting was proceeding smoothly and without election-law violations. However, police sources told ITAR-TASS that there have been 328 complaints of violations, most of them concerning alleged illegal campaigning.
Ukraine Elections Factbox
The parliamentary elections in Ukraine are scheduled for October 28.
A total of 36,687,114 voters are registered in the State Voter Register (SVR) as of August 31.
The elections will use a mixed voting system: 50 percent under party lists and 50 percent under simple-majority constituencies with a 5 percent election threshold.
The participation of blocs of political parties is not allowed anymore.
The option "vote against all" is not included on the electoral lists.
See full factbox
Analysts expect the Party of Regions to hold its majority, despite growing public dissatisfaction with the government over its tax and pensions policies and its failure to stamp out corruption.
A strong showing for his party will bolster the power of Yanukovych, Ukraine's first president to be elected without the support of at least half of the country's voters when he beat bitter rival Yulia Tymoshenko in a runoff in early 2010.
"Everyone hopes for the better, including me," middle-aged voter Mykhailo Symonenko, told Reuters in Kyiv. "I have worked all my life, and it is quite natural for me to expect a better life. I hope we will elect deputies who are decent and respectful of our nation."
Former Prime Minister Tymoshenko, who is serving a seven-year prison term on a conviction for abuse of office and faces further charges that she says are politically motivated, urged voters to participate in the elections, which she condemned as unfair "no matter who wins them."
Tymoshenko's daughter, Yevhenia, spoke to journalists after casting her ballot in Kyiv.
"I was not able to vote together with my parents as I usually did because my mother was unlawfully arrested, and against her constitutional right she was not given an opportunity to take part in the political process as she is the main opponent of Yanukovich," the younger Tymoshenko said. "Therefore, today I've voted for freedom of my mother, for freedom of political prisoners, for justice, and for our country returning to democracy so we will not wake up tomorrow in a concentration camp or in jail."
Tymoshenko's Batkivshchyna, or Fatherland, party will vie for opposition votes with the new UDAR party of world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, who has vowed to wipe out corruption in the country of 46 million, and the United Opposition movement, led by former Foreign Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
After casting his ballot, Yatsenyuk stressed the importance of the elections for Ukraine's future.
"It is very important how the elections are held across Ukraine, because these are the elections of Ukraine's future," Yatsenyuk said. "And it is crucial that on election day the will of the Ukrainian people will not be rigged."
Female inmates cast their votes at the prison in Kharkiv where opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko was held before being sent to hospital.
International monitors include a 700-member team from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
"It's obviously very important that these elections take place in a fair democratic manner, that's why we are here, and this goes for all parts of the elections in Ukraine," OSCE election monitor Friis Lykke, who was monitoring the vote at the prison near Kharkiv where Tymoshenko is being held, said. "And it's very important that all citizens of Ukraine that are eligible to vote are actually able to do so, so that's also why we are here."
Ukraine is due to take over the rotating chairmanship of the OSCE in January, giving its October 28 elections extra significance, according to OSCE spokesman Neil Simon.
"Certainly, with Ukraine coming in as the chair of the OSCE in 2013, there is a lot of attention on this country to see that it's upholding its international commitments to democracy," Simon said.
In a joint article
published on October 24 by "The New York Times," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the West was concerned at Tymoshenko's continued imprisonment, and at reports that state resources were being used to promote Party of the Regions' candidates.
Struggling with the global economic slowdown, which has hit steel and other exports hard, Ukrainians appear little enthused over the elections.
Speaking to Reuters on election day, an elderly woman who identified herself only as Nina captured the mood.
"I don't expect anything from this election," she said. "It will not change anything neither for me as a citizen, nor for the country in general."
Based on reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, and RFE/RL