The party of Ukraine's incumbent President Viktor Yanukovych looks on track to win a majority in the 450-seat State Rada, or parliament, after a hard-fought election campaign that seems to have done little more than confirm the hard, enduring political divisions between the country's Ukrainian-speaking Europe-leaning west, moderate center, and the Russian-speaking and Moscow-oriented east.
But there remain serious differences over whether the campaign and Sunday's voting were free and fair. If doubts linger about the election, Mr. Yanukovych faces a more difficult time signing an economic agreement with the European Union – a key part of the government's aspirations to become less reliant on Russia.
The 56-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which fielded the largest team of international observers, reported Monday that while election day was calm and peaceful, the campaign was distorted by "a tilted playing field" in favor of Yanukovych's Party of Regions, and that vote-counting was marred by "a lack of transparency."
"Ukrainians deserved better from these elections. The [excessive role of money in] the whole process meant that citizens lost their ownership of the election, as well as their trust in it," said Andreas Gross, the Head of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) delegation. "Unfortunately, the great democratic potential of Ukrainian society was not realized in yesterday's vote."
Many Ukrainian observers made similar judgments.
"I've been analyzing election campaigns for 20 years, and I have never seen so many massive falsifications. It's clear that we have a general crisis of our state institutions," says Viktor Nebozhenko, director of Ukrainian Barometer, a Kiev-based political consultancy.
"This election campaign was a cold civil war, with all against all, and the authorities coming out as the only winners," he adds.
Some observers dissented from the OSCE view. Several dozen European parliamentarians and other experts with the European Academy for Election Observation insisted they saw no systematic violations that would call the result into question.
"The Ukrainian parliamentary elections were held in compliance with democratic norms," Thierry Mariani, a former French minister, told a Kiev press conference Monday. "We conclude that they were broadly in line with international standards."
With barely half the votes counted by Monday evening, it seemed clear that the Party of Regions was set to win about 36 percent of the votes, a clear expression of its traditional support in the Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine. Second, with up to 25 percent, is the Fatherland bloc of Ms. Tymoshenko, whose imprisonment last year on charges of abusing power while she was prime minister has been the main cause of worsening relations between Yanukovych's government and the EU.
"There was a lot of talk about Tymoshenko's waning relevance, because she is in prison and other reasons, but it turns out that her party is as strong as ever," says Olexander Sushko, research director of the independent Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kiev.
"It's actually a bit of a surprise, but it clearly means that she and her party command the support of a stable part of the electorate.... That's very important to keep in mind," he adds.
Another constant but significant fact of Ukrainian political life is that the Communist Party, which usually aligns with the Party of Regions, appears to be on track for a solid third place showing of around 15 percent. This means that Yanukovych may expect continuing pressure on his left flank to continue populist social policies, move closer to Moscow on the geopolitical arena, and to upgrade the status of the Russian language in Ukraine.
But the ascent of two new parties to the Rada may have more unpredictable consequences. The ultra-nationalist, western Ukraine-based Svoboda (Freedom) party surprised everyone by winning over 8 percent of the votes and will have a substantial cohort, for the first time, in the Rada. The rise of Svoboda, which lionizes Ukrainian "freedom fighters" of the past – whom the Russians label "Nazis" – and supports Ukrainian-language-only policies in a country that history made intractably bilingual – is sure to irk Moscow and could lead to heightened political turmoil in Kiev.
Many people worry about Svoboda's aggressive nationalist – some say racist – outlook, but some Ukrainian experts say those fears are exaggerated.
"Svoboda is a right-wing nationalist party, but not unique in Europe," says Mr. Sushko.
"It can be compared with Marine Le Pen's National Front in France, or the True Finns in Finland. They are certainly ideological, with emphasis on traditional values and the ethnic nature of the nation, but they're part of the European landscape," he says.
The other surprise was the fourth place showing of boxing champion Vitali Klitschko's party, UDAR (Punch), which is Kiev-based and liberal in outlook, but is primarily a vehicle for Mr. Klitschko's personal ambitions. The result will be a personal disappointment for Klitschko, who had hoped for second place, but will nonetheless leave him in command of a substantial parliamentary cohort.
"The Party of Regions is not unhappy with the entrance of UDAR into the Rada," says Vladislav Lukyanov, a leading Party of Regions deputy.
"The Rada is being refreshed with new talent, and it won't be the same old tug-of-war between two political forces.... This is good, and I think it will help Europeans to see that Ukraine is a developing democracy that has made a European choice. It is to be hoped that European doubts about us will be eased and that they will return to the path of negotiations, even if they don't consider the Party of Regions to be the ideal partner," he adds.
In the almost three years since Yanukovych was narrowly elected over his main rival, Tymoshenko, he's moved Ukraine away from the pro-Western policies of his predecessor, Orange Revolution leader Viktor Yushchenko, and tried to balance relations between Russia and the West.
But the imprisonment of Tymoshenko and other top opposition leaders alienated Europe, while deepening financial distress has forced Yanukovych to turn toward Moscow, which hopes to lure Ukraine into a Russian-led former Soviet customs union.
Experts say that little is likely to change, at least in the short term, except that Yanukovych's margin of maneuvering will be more narrow.
"Yanukovych will go on trying to play off East against West," in hopes of gaining advantages for Ukraine's flagging economy, says Mr. Nebozhenko.
"Now he will be able to tell the Russians that the Svoboda faction in the Rada won't permit Ukraine to join Moscow's customs union, and he'll be able to point to the strong Communist Party, when explaining his other pro-Moscow moves to the Europeans. That's the game plan," he adds.