- Yanukovich's ruling party leads exit polls with 28.1% of votes
- Opposition parties have strong showings; United Opposition coalition gets 24.7%
- Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has attempted to rally the opposition from prison
- The ruling Party of Regions says the vote will be closely monitored and fair
Ukraine's ruling party took the largest share of votes in Sunday's parliamentary elections, according to exit polls, leading all opposition parties in a contest seen as a test for democracy in the former Soviet republic.
President Viktor Yanukovich's Party of Regions took 28.1% of the vote in a field of five parties expected to hold seats in parliament, according to Ukraine's National Exit Poll. The United Opposition coalition, organized by jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and her allies, followed with 24.7%.
Two parties that coordinated with United Opposition had strong showings as well. Running third, with 15.1%, was the Udar ("Punch") party of heavyweight boxing champ Vitali Klitchko. And the Svoboda ("Freedom") party was fourth with 12.3%, the poll found.
If the count follows the exit polls, that would leave Yanukovich dealing with a parliament likely to be dominated by opposition parties.
"The results of exit polls show clearly that people of Ukraine support the opposition, not the government," United Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk told reporters after polls closed Sunday night. "And that's the clear sign that we still have democracy in this country."
There was no immediate response to the results from the Party of Regions.
Ukraine's Communists were running in fifth place with 11.8%, according to the exit poll.
The Central Electoral Commussion released the first actual results late Sunday from overseas votes and small precincts within Ukraine. Those numbers -- about one-tenth of one percent of the total -- showed Yanukovich's party with 50.7%, the United Opposition with 14.9%, the Communists with 14.6%, Udar with 7% and Svoboda with 5.8%.
Ukraine has become increasingly isolated under Yanukovich, with Western observers accusing his ruling party of corruption, political persecution and a drift towards authoritarianism. Those concerns are embodied in the treatment of Tymoshenko, who is serving a seven-year sentence for abuse of power after what the United States and European Union have both called a politically motivated show trial.
Tymoshenko pleaded with Ukrainians to oppose what she called the country's "mafia regime" in a video her lawyer smuggled out of her lockup in September.
"This is really a moment of truth for Ukraine, and it's really a point where the international community has to name these events by their true names," her daughter, Evgenia Tymoshenko, told CNN before the vote.
No turnout figures were immediately available, but voting appeared light in a country where many have become disillusioned with politics.
Even from prison, Tymoshenko persuaded the country's usually divided opposition to unite for the vote. Eight parties joined forces to produce the United Opposition coalition, while Udar and Svoboda agreed to strategically withdraw candidates to avoid splitting the anti-Yanukovich vote.
While the opposition was expected to run strongly in Kiev, the Party of Regions has a strong base in eastern Ukraine.
Yurii Miroshnychenko, Yanukovich's official representative in parliament, said closed-circuit television cameras were installed in every polling station and thousands of Ukrainian and international observers were present to watch the balloting. But international observers have expressed concern about the use of government resources by Party of Regions candidates, the almost-complete absence of independent media coverage, and the intimidation of opposition activists. And United Opposition was already raising alarms Sunday afternoon about fraud at the polls.
"The campaign was very tough, extremely tough. Intimidation, they purchased the voters, they intimidated the members of the election commissions," Yatsenyuk said. "So they did their utmost with a an iron fist to do something to win the elections, but look at the results of the exit polls. They didn't succeed."