Ukraine's ruling party was set Monday to beat the allies of jailed ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko in legislative elections that observers condemned as a setback for the ex-Soviet state's nascent democracy.
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov predicted that the Regions Party had won an outright majority in Sunday's ballot following a disappointing performance by another opposition group led by world heavyweight boxer Vitaly Klitschko.
"We expect these results to hold," Azarov told reporters. "This means that the Regions Party has scored a resounding victory.
"We are expecting that the Regions Party will take the majority in the new parliament."
But observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) issued an unusually strong statement describing the election process as a step backwards for Ukraine.
"Considering the abuse of power, and the excessive role of money in this election, democratic progress appears to have reversed in Ukraine," said OSCE special coordinator Walburga Habsburg Douglas.
"One should not have to visit a prison to hear from leading political figures in the country."
Ukraine's 2010 presidential election -- which saw Viktor Yanukovych defeat Tymoshenko amid disappointment over the fruits of the 2004 Orange Revolution popular uprising -- had been hailed by observers as the cleanest ever in the ex-Soviet Union.
"Certain aspects of the pre-election period constituted a step backwards compared with recent national elections," the OSCE report said.
The European Union also put Ukraine on notice that it would be watching the country carefully after a vote described by EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton and EU commissioner for enlargement Stefan Fule as a "mixed picture with several shortcomings".
"The final assessment will... depend on the post-electoral developments which we will watch closely," they said in a joint statement.
Alluding to Tymoshenko, they also expressed their "regret that the consequences of trials that did not respect international standards have prevented opposition representatives from standing."
The Ukrainian foreign ministry quickly issued a statement in which it vowed to "carefully analyse" the observers' criticisms and "improve the election legislation and practice."
The criticism by the OSCE is all the more bitter for Ukraine as it is due to take the chairmanship of the body in 2013.
Official results gave Yanukovych's Regions Party 33.2 percent of the vote against 23.2 percent for Tymoshenko's opposition party with 73 percent of precincts reporting in the proportional system that will determine half the seats in the new chamber.
The ruling party was also on course to win at least 114 seats out of the 225 that are being determined by first-past-the-post single mandate constituencies.
Tymoshenko's party said it had conducted a parallel count which showed the Regions Party leading her faction by a much narrower margin of just over four percent -- an outcome which had also been predicted by exit polls.
-- 'Falsified from start to finish' --
The ex-premier then announced she was launching a hunger strike from inside the state hospital where she was moved this summer from jail to receive treatment for a debilitating back condition.
"These elections were falsified from start to finish," Tymoshenko said in a statement read by her lawyer Sergiy Vlasenko.
She added that her hunger strike would last "until the true results are established."
Regions parliamentary faction leader Olexander Efremov said he expected to control 230 seats in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada house of parliament.
"The Regions Party will have a majority either on its own or with help from MPs from the single mandate constituencies," said Mykhailo Pogrebynsky of the Kiev institute of political research.
"This is the first time in Ukraine's history that the ruling party has won the legislative elections," he added.
The final turnout was robust at 58 percent.
The Communists were polling strongly in third place with 14.5 percent. Klitschko's new UDAR (Punch) party was on 13.2 percent -- a disappointment given some pre-election opinion polls had placed it in second place.
The ultra-nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party was also due to break the five-percent threshold needed to make parliament and was polling 9.0 percent.
The Tymoshenko and Klitschko parties are expected to form an alliance with Svoboda in a bid to form a bloc large enough to set the chamber's agenda.
But Klitschko conceded that "in all probability the majority will belong to the ruling party."
The big loser of these polls appears to be the recently retired football star Andriy Shevchenko -- an eight-year AC Milan veteran who had astonished his fans by becoming a leading figure in the Ukraine Forward! party of former Tymoshenko ally Natalya Korolevska.
Initial results showed the party winning just 1.7 percent of the vote and a handful of single mandate seats.