Governing Party Claims Victory in Ukraine Elections

By David M. Herszenhorn

The governing party of President Viktor F. Yanukovich declared victory in Ukraine’s parliamentary elections on Sunday, based on preliminary exit polls that also showed opposition parties making strong gains, including an unexpectedly strong rise in support for an ultranationalist party with a leader who is known for anti-Semitic and racist views.


Election workers counted ballots at a polling station in downtown Kiev.


The precise makeup of the Parliament, called the Verkhovna Rada, will not be known for several weeks because half of the 450 seats will be filled by candidates who did not have to declare a party affiliation ahead of Sunday’s balloting.


But preliminary surveys of voters by five separate research and news media organizations showed Mr. Yanukovich’s Party of Regions in the lead with 27.6 percent to 32 percent of the vote, followed by the Fatherland party of Yulia V. Tymoshenko, the jailed former prime minister, with about 24 percent. A party led by the boxing champion Vitali Klitschko was third with about 14 percent.



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“With this vote our people have shown that they understand what a difficult economic situation the country was in, and that our party has taken the full responsibility over the situation,” Prime Minister Mykola Azarov declared at a news conference, as hundreds of supporters gathered for a victory party on a square in central Kiev, waving blue and yellow flags.


Mr. Azarov said the preliminary results affirmed support for Mr. Yanukovich, who was elected in 2010 in a runoff against Ms. Tymoshenko. Mr. Yanukovich and his government have come under withering criticism in the West over the jailing of his rival and taking steps that have expanded executive control and rolled back previous democratic reforms.


But it appeared possible that the Party of Regions, and its traditional ally, the Communist Party, would wield less control over Parliament than they do now.


By far the most striking result from Sunday’s election was the surge in support for the Freedom Party, an ultranationalist, right wing party that could control a faction in Parliament for the first time. The surveys showed the party winning about 12 percent of the vote, compared with the less than 1 percent that it received in the last elections in 2007.


The Freedom Party’s rise caught many analysts by surprise and appeared at least partly to represent a backlash against a law elevating the status of the Russian language that was rammed through Parliament by the Party of Regions, infuriating many native Ukrainian speakers, particularly in the western part of the country.


The party’s strong performance also seemed to emphasize the growing disillusionment among many Ukrainian voters for the country’s familiar political actors, including Mr. Yanukovich and Ms. Tymoshenko, who was barred from the ballot.


The Freedom Party is led by Oleg Tyagnibok, a fiery nationalist, who has called in the past for purges of Jews and Russians from Ukraine. His party’s influence is likely to be even bigger than its share of the vote because of a cooperation agreement that it signed with Ms. Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party.


That agreement drew a critical statement on Saturday from the Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who alluded to the deaths of millions of Jews on Ukrainian soil during the Holocaust. “Anti-Semitic insults by Svoboda have caused outrage on a number of occasions both in Ukraine and in Israel,” Mr. Lieberman said, using the party’s Ukrainian name. “The expression of such views reminds of the darkest pages in the history of the last century that has led humanity to the tragedy of the Second World War.”


Mr. Tyagnibok, in an appearance on the television channel 1+1, said that the party was not surprised by the exit poll results and he accused the Yanukovich government of manipulating opinion polls ahead of the election to show the Freedom Party as unlikely to surpass the 5 percent threshold needed to hold a faction in Parliament.


“The palace sociological services were showing lower ratings of Svoboda trying to not let us above the 5 percent threshold in order to disenchant our voters, but it turned out that this only made our voters angry and mobilized them,” Mr. Tyagnibok said.


Critics of the Yanukovich government both in Ukraine and in the West said that Sunday’s election was heavily tilted in favor of the governing Party of Regions by the imprisonment of prominent opposition leaders and state pressure on news media outlets.


The criticism prompted the government to go to extraordinary lengths to portray the elections as fair, including the installation of Web cameras in more than 30,000 polling stations.


Over all, the voting seemed to go relatively smoothly with only scattered reports of Election Day shenanigans — at least at the polling stations.


In one district in Odessa, observers said there were reports of voters being given pens with disappearing ink to fill out their ballots, so their choices could be altered later. But most of the ballot counting was still under way on Sunday night, and election observers say the process of counting and certifying results often provides the greatest opportunities for fraud and manipulation.


Outside a children’s art school in Kiev where President Yanukovich cast his own ballot, Stanislav I. Titoryenko, 72, a retired construction engineer, said that he was voting for the nationalist Freedom Party because he was fed up with corruption.


Mr. Titoryenko said the corruption favored associates of Mr. Yanukovich from his hometown Donetsk, in the predominantly Russian-speaking southeast where the Party of Regions draws its base of support.


He said the Freedom Party would stand up for Ukrainians. “They can hit their opponents in the face,” Mr. Titoryenko said. “They are fighters. They will not just sit there and keep their mouths shut. They are for Ukraine.”


The New York Times