International election monitors have given a strongly negative assessment of Ukraine's parliamentary vote while ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has gone on hunger strike to protest the manner in which the poll was conducted.
Speaking on October 29 at a press conference in Kyiv, Walburga Habsburg Douglas, the head of the short-term monitoring mission for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), maintained that the vote had dealt a severe setback to Ukraine's democratic gains:
"Considering the abuse of power and the excessive role of money in this election, democratic progress appears to have reversed in Ukraine," she said.
Habsburg Douglas blamed ruling politicians for using administrative resources to influence the outcome of the vote.
She also said the campaign was marked by biased media coverage and a lack of financial transparency.
The Western monitoring groups, which included observer missions from NATO and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), noted relatively few irregularities on voting day.
But monitors criticized the tabulation of the vote count, which they said was conducted privately with no room for impartial oversight.
The vote on October 28 appears likely to hand victory to the ruling Party of Regions of President Viktor Yanukovych.
With some 75 percent of the ballots currently counted, the Party of Regions is currently leading with more than 33 percent of the vote.
Batkivshchnya (Fatherland), the party of jailed opposition leader and Yanukovych rival Yulia Tymoshenko, is in second place with around 23 percent.
The Communist Party, traditional allies of the Party of Regions, is in third place with about 14 percent.
UDAR (the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, or "Punch"), the party of world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, and Svoboda (Freedom) are trailing with around 13 and 9 percent respectively.
'Oligarchization' Of The Election Process
At least one exit poll had earlier shown a closer contest between the two main parties of Yanukovych and Tymoshenko.
Party of Regions officials claim their share of the vote will increase as individual races are tabulated.
Half of the Verkhovna Rada's 450 seats come from party lists. The other half come from single-mandate constituencies.
Ukrainian Prime Minister and leader of the Party of Regions Mykola Azarov said in Kyiv on October 29 that he was confident his party would secure an "overwhelming" win.
Tymoshenko has announced a hunger strike in protest at alleged vote rigging and is reportedly drinking only water.
Her supporters have called for scrutiny in the vote-count for the single-mandate constituencies, which are considered particularly susceptible to fraud.
United Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk urged election officials to speed up the vote counting and called for the "express will of Ukrainians" to be acknowledged.
The Central Elections Commission is reporting that the Party of Regions is leading or has already won in 117 single-mandate constituencies, with Tymoshenko's party trailing with just 40.
Andreas Gross, the head of the PACE delegation, told reporters that "the great democratic potential of Ukrainian society was not realized" in the vote on October 28.
"Ukrainians deserved better from these elections," he said. "The oligarchization of the whole process meant that citizens lost their ownership of the election process as well as their trust in it."
Monitors called on the Ukrainian Parliament to act as a "role model" as it prepares to assume the rotating chairmanship of the OSCE in two months.
Western officials have called the elections a "litmus test" for the country's political progress.
It's the first major vote for Ukraine since Orange Revolution icon Tymoshenko lost a close presidential vote to Yanukovych in early 2010.
Tymoshenko, who is currently serving a seven-year prison sentence for abuse of office, voted from her bed in a hospital where she is receiving medical treatment.
Walburga Habsburg criticized the jail terms handed out to Tymoshenko and her former Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko, saying "One should not need to go to prison to hear from leading political figures in this country."
With reporting by pravda.com.ua and Interfax-Ukraine