Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's pro-business party seemed likely to hold on to a majority in parliament after an election on Sunday, but it will face a revitalized opposition boosted by a resurgent nationalist party, exit polls showed.
Leaders of the Party of the Regions claimed victory after two exit polls put it in the lead with between 28 per cent and 30.5 per cent of the voting in the part of balloting conducted by party lists.
A senior Regions leader said he expected the party to pick up two thirds of the remaining vote in individual districts, ensuring it of a simple majority in the 450-seat assembly.
But the big surprise came from the Ukrainian nationalist party Svoboda (Freedom), which exit polls said appeared certain of winning representation in parliament for the first time after taking around 12 per cent of the party list voting.
Svoboda's strong showing boosted opposition ranks, which include the Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party of Mr. Yanukovych's jailed opponent Yulia Tymoshenko and the UDAR (Punch) party of boxing champion Vitali Klitschko.
But though these three opposition parties appeared to have won roughly half of the vote on party lists, they were not expected to fare as well in the single-mandate constituencies, results of which will only begin to emerge on Monday. There were no immediate available figures for how this would translate into seats in the 450-member single-chamber parliament.
But Borys Kolesnikov, a deputy prime minister, said he foresaw the Regions dominating in single-mandate constituencies. "There are 225 single-seat constituencies and we see our candidates winning two-thirds of them," he said.
Victory by the Regions is certain to cement the leadership of Mr. Yanukovych, 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 Ms. Tymoshenko's imprisonment. Ms. Tymoshenko, the country's most vibrant opposition figure, 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 Yanukovych government says the agreement saddled Ukraine with an enormous price for gas supplies.
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 Ms. Tymoshenko, Ukraine does not see eye to eye with Russia which has turned a deaf ear to Kiev's calls for cheaper gas.
If the exit polls are proven accurate, Mr. Klitschko, the WBC heavyweight boxing champion, will now enter parliament at the head of his new party after a campaign in which he has been critical of corruption and cronyism under Mr. Yanukovych's rule.
The strong showing by the far-right Svoboda party, which campaigns for the defence of the Ukrainian language and culture but is also infamous for xenophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric, emerged as a surprise and showed the widespread disappointment and anger with the ruling party.
Opposition forces hope to garner enough parliament seats to weaken Mr. Yanukovych's power and undo the damage they say he has done by the jailing of Ms. Tymoshenko and her top allies, concentrating power in the hands of the president, snubbing of the Ukrainian language in favour of Russian and presiding over a waning media freedoms, a deteriorating business climate and growing corruption.