Polls have closed in Ukraine in a key electoral test for President Viktor Yanukovych's ruling party, with his allies claiming victory and holding a lead of several percentage points over their opposition challengers.
Voters were picking a new 450-member parliament in what some called a litmus test for Ukrainian democracy, where the Party of Regions has controlled a majority of seats.
The international community is watching the process closely for signs of democratic backsliding, with the opposition citing irregularities but no indication that violations were on a scale that would upend the process.
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, who took over the Party of Regions from Yanukovych when the latter became president, said the ruling party was the clear victor.
"It is absolutely obvious that the Party of Regions has won," Azarov said. "It is obvious to everyone. It will not be obvious only to a handful of voices. Some would very much wish that we lost but we won. We won in an absolutely fair fight."
Official exit polls issued immediately after voting ended suggested a lead for the ruling Party of Regions at 28.1 percent, followed by the united opposition Fatherland (Batkivshchyna) party led by jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko at 24.7 percent; the Udar party of boxer Vitali Klitschko at 15.1 percent; the Freedom (Svoboda) party at 12.3 percent; the Communists at 11.8 percent; and the pro-business Ukraine Forward! party at 1.6 percent, short of the 5 percent required for entry to parliament.
Early preliminary results, however, suggested a bigger win for the Party of Regions.
With some 20 percent of polling stations reporting, the Party of Regions had about 37 percent of the vote, followed by Fatherland with some 20 percent. The Communist Party had 15.5 percent, and Klitschko's Udar had 12 percent. The anti-government Freedom party had seven percent.
These results were from party-list voting.
Klitschko, quoted by ITAR-TASS, said after the vote that he believed his party should unite with the Fatherland and Freedom parties in the new parliament.
Yanukovych, whose party was widely expected to keep its legislative majority, had urged a vote for "stability" after casting his ballot on October 28. A product of Ukraine's industrially oriented east, Yanukovych also stressed "economic development" to would-be voters.
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
He is in the middle of a five-year term that has been dogged by domestic and international accusations of a return to authoritarian rule.
Critics cite the prosecutions of jailed political rival Tymoshenko and her allies as evidence of political abuse.
Half the seats in the Verkhovna Rada will be awarded based on a proportional system. The other 225 will be given based on first-past-the-post single-mandate constituencies.
Borys Kolesnikov, deputy prime minister and one of the Party of Regions' leaders, predicted after the voting ended that his party would win two-thirds of the single mandates.
But opposition United Opposition movement leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk insisted that "exit poll results have shown that the people of Ukraine support the opposition and not the government."
A top Tymoshenko aide, Oleksandr Turchynov, accused authorities in the October 28 vote of attempting to rig the vote by registering several hundred thousand Ukrainians as ill and voting at home.
Ukraine's relations with the West have soured over Tymoshenko's jailing, which prompted the EU to freeze a partnership deal with Kyiv.
Another pro-Western party, Udar, led by world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, said one of its candidates, Olha Herasimyuk, was attacked while she was trying to record an allege vote-buying scheme.
Several polling stations in Odesa briefly closed after election officials found pens with disappearing ink in voting booths.
RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service also reported that news websistes in Crimea claimed they were attacked by hackers on election day. According to the director of the Simferopol-based Information Press Center, Valentina Samar, eight publications -- including regional media centers in Sevastopol, Evpatoria, Feodosia, Yalta, and Dzhankoy -- experienced attacks. The websites were publishing reports on voting irregularities.
Election officials said preliminary figures put turnout at 56.76 percent nationwide, with the highest showing in the capital, Kyiv (69 percent) and Lviv (68 percent).
No minimum turnout is required for the elections to be valid.
PHOTO GALLERY: A day in the election life of Ukraine:
Midway through the voting, Prime Minister Azarov told journalists in Kyiv that the process was proceeding smoothly and without election-law violations.
Ukrainian Voters Committee Chairman Oleksandr Chernenko meanwhile said that there had been no more irregularities than in other elections.
"The level of violations and violation reports are no higher than in previous election campaigns," Chernenko said as voting continued, "so at this moment it is hard to say whether those violations are systemic. But we think that the election day will proceed normally, despite a few issues."
Central Election Commission Secretary Tetyana Lukash similarly predicted to journalists that "there will be no sensations, because voting is continuing in Ukraine in a calm and organized manner with a fairly high turnout."
An election deemed unfair would likely turn Ukraine further away from the West and toward Moscow, which provided a boost to Yanukovych in his bruising presidential race against Tymoshenko in 2010.
Opposition forces accuse Yanukovych of increasing his powers, downgrading of the Ukrainian language in favor of Russian, diminishing media freedoms, and damaging the business climate.
Analysts, however, expected the Party of Regions to hold its majority.
A mobile ballot box was sent to Tymoshenko, who is currently serving a seven-year prison term for abuse of power but moved to a hospital to undergo treatment for back pain.
Tymoshenko's daughter, Yevhenia, told journalists after casting her ballot in Kyiv that "against her constitutional right [Yulia Tymoshenko] was not given an opportunity to take part in the political process as she is the main opponent of Yanukovich."
International monitors include hundreds of people observing on behalf of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
"It is...the biggest mission the OSCE has ever deployed for election observation," OSCE observer Walburga Habsburg Douglas said of the mission. "We are over 800 observers from the OSCE from nearly 40 different countries. And the mission has been [going] very well so far. We have deployed our people yesterday and today, it's absolutely fine. And right now we are just visiting different polling stations and then we are going to put together our statement for tomorrow."
Ukraine is due to take over the rotating chairmanship of the OSCE in January, giving the October 28 election extra significance.
With additional reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP