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Ruling party leads in Ukraine parliament vote

Maria Danilova, Associated Press

Election commission officials count ballots at a polling station in Kiev, Ukraine, Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012. Ukrainians are electing a parliament on Sunday in a crucial vote tainted by the jailing of top opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko and fears of election fraud. (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov)

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) -- Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's party headed toward victory in parliamentary elections, but its grip on power appeared weakened as the opposition capitalized on anger over the jailing of the president's main rival and slow reforms, preliminary election results showed Monday.

Yanukovych's Party of Regions was likely to sweep individual races for parliamentary seats across the country, but three opposition parties combined to outpoll it in the proportional vote, according to early results and exit polls.

The election had already been severely compromised by the jailing of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Opposition parties have also alleged severe violations, including vote-buying, multiple voting and non-transparent vote counting, though authorities insisted that the vote was clean. International observers were to deliver their verdict on the fairness of the vote later on Monday.

The West is paying close attention to the vote in the strategic ex-Soviet state, which lies between Russia and the European Union, and serves as a key conduit for transit of Russian energy supplies to many EU countries. An election deemed unfair could lead to a further freeze in Kiev's ties with the West and push it closer to Moscow.

With votes counted at over 50 percent of polling stations nationwide early afternoon on Monday, Party of Regions was ahead with 35 percent in the proportional share of the vote, while Tymoshenko's party came second with some 22 percent of the vote, trailed by the Communists, Yanukovych's traditional allies, with 15 percent. Another pro-Western party, called Udar (Punch) led by boxing champion Vitali Klitschko garnered 13 percent and the far-right Svoboda (Freedom) party had 8 percent of the vote.

The Regions also were likely to win more than half of the 225 total seats allocated in individual races, according to early results, meaning that his team was likely to get a majority of votes in the 450-member parliament.

"This will enable us to form a majority and quickly start implementing the reforms that we started," Deputy Prime Minister Serhiy Tigipko told the Associated Press.

Yanukovych's party strongly benefited from an electoral change it pushed through last year. Under the new law, the strictly proportional electoral system has been changed into a mixed one, in which half the Verkhovna Rada seats are elected based on party lists and the other half in individual races.

Yanukovych's candidates are stronger in those majority races, with the opposition fielding multiple candidates and the ruling party enjoying greater access to government funds and resources.

However, with Yanukovych under fire over Tymoshenko's imprisonment, rampant corruption, slow reforms and a stagnant economy, the opposition made a strong showing in the proportional vote.

"This clearly shows that the people of Ukraine support the opposition, not the government," Tymoshenko ally Arseniy Yatsenyuk said.

Political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko said Yanukovych's party will likely retain control over parliament, but will have to wrestle with a strengthened opposition.

"The Party of Region won by the number of points, but the opposition scored a moral victory," Fesenko said. "The balance of power may change. The monopoly on power will be harder to maintain."

The confident showing of the far-right Svoboda party, which had been expected to barely pass the 5 percent vote threshold, emerged as a big surprise in the election. Svoboda, which campaigns for the preservation of the Ukrainian language and culture and strongly attacks Yanukovych, is also known for xenophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric. Analysts said, however, that the party's popularity was due more to many Ukrainians' anger with the ruling party than vehemently nationalist views.