KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych's party is on course to secure a parliamentary majority after an election, but will face an opposition boosted by resurgent nationalists and a liberal party led by boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko.
Exit polls and first results from Sunday's vote showed Yanukovych's Party of the Regions would, with help from long-time allies, win more than half the seats in the 450-member assembly after boosting public sector wages and welfare handouts to win over disillusioned voters in its traditional power bases.
"It is clear the Party of the Regions has won," Prime Minister Mykola Azarov told reporters. "These elections signal confidence in the president's policies."
Victory for the pro-business Regions party, which represents the interests of the wealthy industrialists bankrolling it, will underpin the leadership of the president, who comes up for re-election in the former Soviet republic in 2015.
His rule since taking power in February 2010 has been marked by an accumulation of presidential powers and tension with the West over the imprisonment of his rival, opposition leader and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Balloting is in two parts, with half the seats allotted to individual candidates winning local district polls and half to parties according to their share of the vote nationally.
Partial results from the Central Election Commission showed the Regions winning 118 constituencies; that, with its projected national vote, would give the party 205 seats. With support from allies such as the communists and independents, the Regions appear certain to reach the 226 seats needed to form a majority.
The main, united opposition bloc, which includes Tymoshenko's Batkivshchyna (Fatherland), was in second place on the party list vote and leading in 36 individual districts.
The Regions appeared to have fared well despite the government's unpopularity and the authoritarian image of Yanukovych, which does not sell well across the country.
Its success was due in part to increased state handouts and promises to enhance the status of the Russian language - an important pledge for Russian-speaking voters in the president's eastern power base, who fear being at a disadvantage to native speakers of Ukrainian.
The introduction of constituency voting also favored Regions candidates, who could draw on state resources.
The biggest surprise came from the nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party which, according to partial results, won about 7.8 percent in the party-list voting. This means it will have significant representation in parliament for the first time.
The unexpectedly strong showing by Svoboda -- which is based in the Ukrainian-speaking west, pursues a strongly Ukrainian nationalist agenda and opposes attempts by the Regions to promote the use of Russian language -- bolstered the ranks of an opposition which has been weakened by the jailing of Tymoshenko.
The other new opposition wild card in parliament will be held by UDAR. Led by boxer Klitschko, under an acronym meaning "punch", the party was in fourth place behind the Regions, communists and the opposition bloc that includes Batkivshchyna.
Many voters made clear they were frustrated with the performance of the established political parties over the past few years. Corruption is a big concern in Ukraine and many of the 46 million Ukrainians face economic hardship.
"We have seen some parties in power and others as well," said Tetyana, 27, referring to Batkivshchyna and the Regions.
"We have seen the results," she added, after voting in Kiev.
Even in the industrial and coalmining city of Donetsk, Yanukovych's main stronghold in the east of the country, many voters said they were disillusioned by the government's record.
"I voted for the Regions Party but simply because it is the lesser of the evils. I can't say I am a great fan of the Regions, but all the rest are worse," said 58-year-old Viktor Grigoryev, a head of section in the construction sector.
Tymoshenko was jailed for seven years last year for abuse of office over 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 second most populous of the former Soviet states, a major exporter of steel and grain sandwiched between Russia and the European Union, Ukraine is more isolated politically on the international stage than it has been for years.
It is at odds with the United States and the European Union over Tymoshenko, and does not see eye to eye with Moscow, which has turned a deaf ear to Kiev's calls for cheaper gas.
In Ukraine, the government is also blamed for not stamping out corruption and has backed off from painful reforms that could secure much-needed lending from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to shore up its export-driven economy.
With the West seeing the poll as a test of Ukraine's commitment to democracy after Tymoshenko's imprisonment, interest will focus on the judgment by observers from the OSCE European security and human rights body later on Monday.
A well-prepared 'borshch'
Klitschko, the 6 ft. 7 in.-tall WBC heavyweight boxing champion, will now enter parliament at the head of his new party and could be a towering force in the assembly. He has been critical of corruption and cronyism under Yanukovych.
He says his party will team up with Arseny Yatsenyuk, who leads the united opposition in Tymoshenko's absence, as well as with other opposition groups, including Svoboda -- though his refusal to join a pre-election coalition engendered suspicion.
He ruled out any pact with the Regions. "We do not foresee any joint work with the Party of the Regions and its communist satellite," he said. "We are ready to work with those political parties which propose a European path of development."
Svoboda leader Oleh Tyahnybok, a 43-year-old surgeon, pledged to stick by a pre-election agreement and work with Yatsenyuk and other opposition leaders in parliament. He also pressed Klitschko to formally join the united opposition.
"We can only hope that, having looked at the situation which has emerged, Vitaly Klitschko will unite with us," he said.
Political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko, of the Penta think tank, said the biggest "sensation" was Svoboda's success and that it reflected a protest against the political establishment.
"The Ukrainian political borshch has got a bit more spicy," he said, referring to the soup that is a national dish. "There will be more pepper -- but how it is going to taste is another question."
More world stories from NBC News:
- After decades of oppression, Kurds get taste of freedom in Syria
- 'A steep fall' for BBC as child sex abuse scandal rocks the UK
- Olympic medals 'stolen' as athletes party at nightclub
- Outrage after video shows Chinese teacher abusing kindergarteners
- 'The new Afghanistan'? West turns its attention to Mali
- Hate crimes rise, far right strengthens as Greece economy sinks
- Top 10 foreign policy issues facing a new president
Copyright 2013 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.