KIEV: Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich’s pro-business ruling party led in a national election Sunday and seemed likely to keep its majority in parliament, exit polls showed, despite a strong showing by the joint opposition.
Two exit polls issued when a day of voting ended showed Yanukovich’s Party of the Regions in the lead with between 28 percent and 30.5 percent of the voting in the part of balloting conducted by party lists.
But the united opposition, which includes the Batkivshchyna [Fatherland] party of Yanukovich’s jailed opponent Yulia Tymoshenko, took around 24 percent while the opposition UDAR liberal party of boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko was on around 15 percent.
There were no immediate available figures for how this would translate into seats in the 450-member single-chamber parliament.
But Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said the ruling party was the clear victor while another senior leadership figure said the final results would show the Regions holding a majority.
“The exit poll data speaks for itself. It is clear the Party of the Regions has won ... These elections signal confidence in the president’s policies,” Azarov told journalists.
But Arseny Yatsenyuk, head of the united opposition in the absence of Tymoshenko, said: “The exit poll results have shown that the people of Ukraine support the opposition and not the government.”
Candidates voted in on party lists account for half of the seats while the other 225 seats will be decided by voting in individual constituencies on a first-past-the-post basis – a feature assumed to favor the Regions party.
Though the exit polls showed some decline in support for the Yanukovich government – unpopular because of its tax and pension policies, the figures suggested the Regions might be able to form a majority especially if it was supported by allies such as the communists.
Borys Kolesnikov, a deputy prime minister, went further, saying he foresaw the Regions picking up two thirds of these single-mandate constituencies, handing the Regions a majority.
Victory by the Regions is certain to cement the leadership of Yanukovich who comes up for re-election in 2015 and whose rule has been marked by an accumulation of presidential powers and antagonism with the West over Tymoshenko’s imprisonment.
With the West seeing the poll as a test of Ukraine’s commitment to democracy, interest will focus on the judgment that international monitors will hand down.
Observers from the OSCE European security and human rights body are due Monday to give their judgment on how fair and free they perceived the poll to have been.
A positive assessment could improve Yanukovich’s image before Ukraine takes over the organization’s chair in January.
The former Soviet republic of 46 million is more isolated internationally than it has been for years. Apart from being at odds with the United States and the European Union over Tymoshenko, Ukraine does not see eye to eye with Russia which has turned a deaf ear to Kiev’s calls for cheaper gas.
At home, the government is also blamed for failing to stamp out corruption and has backed off from painful reforms that could secure much-needed IMF lending to shore up its export-driven economy.
But the Regions, which is bankrolled by the country’s wealthy industrialists, should have no difficulty in forming a majority with the Communists who also easily passed the 5 percent barrier needed for parliamentary representation, according to the exit polls.
But it might now face a tougher time in parliament.
Klitschko, the WBC world heavyweight champion, says his UDAR [Punch] party will team up with the opposition led by Yatsenyuk, a former economy minister, to fight corruption, which they say deters entrepreneurial spirit and foreign investment. He urged voters to “vote as your heart tells you.”
From her jail in Kharkiv in Ukraine’s northeast, Tymoshenko last Thursday issued a statement warning that Yanukovich, who comes up for re-election in 2015, would set up a “dictatorship and never again give up power by peaceful means.”
Tymoshenko was jailed for seven years last year for abuse of office relating to a 2009 gas deal with Russia which she made when she was prime minister. The Yanukovich government says the agreement saddled Ukraine with an enormous price for gas supplies.