By Olzhas Auyezov
KIEV (Reuters) - A Ukrainian nationalist party accused of being anti-Semitic and hostile to homosexuals has made sharp gains in the country's parliamentary election, shaking up its political elite.
Svoboda, which draws on suspicion of Russia and of Ukraine's large Russian-speaking minority, was winning about 9 percent of the ballot in early returns on Monday, though many saw its surge into parliament as more of a protest vote against the government and main opposition rather than an endorsement of its policies.
Allied in Europe with France's National Front, the British National Party and Hungary's Jobbik among others, Svoboda, whose name means Freedom, may take some 33 of parliament's 450 seats; having never previously held more than one, it will now be one of three main parties opposing President Viktor Yanukovich.
The movement, previously known by the Nazi-inflected title the Social-National Party, denies hostility to Jews, though its present leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, was once expelled from a mainstream parliamentary grouping after denouncing a previous Ukrainian government as a "mafia of Russians and Yids".
A 43-year-old urogenital surgeon, Tyahnybok hails from Lviv, the western heartland of Ukrainian nationalism during Soviet times and a stronghold today of opposition to the influence of Russian-speaking easterners - like President Yanukovich.
The rise of his party, which has criticized campaigns for gay rights and honors nationalist partisans who allied with Hitler's forces against the Red Army in World War Two, was apparently propelled by last-minute decisions among some voters.
"Svoboda was the biggest surprise," said political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko, noting that opinion polls taken as late as last week had forecast it might not secure the five percent of the national vote required to be represented in parliament.
"Many people decided to vote for Svoboda in the last few days," Fesenko said. "It was protest voting, not a vote for Ukrainian nationalism."
That seemed to be borne out by some of those who voted.
Dmytro Yakovenko, a 28-year-old journalist, said he opted for Svoboda out of frustration with the ruling Party of the Regions and its communist allies: "I wanted to swing the vote away from the communists and the Regions," he said in Kiev.
Yanukovich's party is nonetheless set fair to retain power.
Iryna Sorokun, 67, a pensioner, said of Svoboda: "They seem to be decent people and they have never been in parliament or government, so I thought I should give them a chance."
Svoboda, which follows other right-wing populist parties in making gains in Europe during the financial and economic crisis, also benefited from the Regions' efforts this year to enact a law bolstering the official status of the Russian language.
UNEASY OPPOSITION ALLIANCE
Svoboda's agenda includes limiting the number of government ministers who are not "ethnic Ukrainians" - a term that might affect notably ethnic Russians, who account for a sixth of the population, as well as Tatars, Jews and other small minorities.
One Svoboda activist famously campaigned successfully to have a bus driver in Lviv dismissed from his job after he refused to stop playing Russian-language songs on his route.
The party wants to ban abortion and, while Tyahnybok has been quoted as saying sexual orientation is "everyone's personal business", Svoboda has made clear it opposes gay rights and has demanded a ban on the "propaganda of sexual perversions".
The party leader denies it has ever been anti-Semitic. But it has held rallies calling for limits on Jewish pilgrimages to the grave of an 18th-century Hassidic rabbi in the city of Uman.
Some other opponents of Yanukovich have kept their distance: "It is hard to agree with some things that smell like the far right," said Vitaly Klitschko, a heavyweight boxing champion who leads the liberal party UDAR. "We won't support extremism."
However, the main united opposition bloc which includes the Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party of Yanukovich's jailed adversary Yulia Tymoshenko, struck an alliance with Svoboda before the election to cooperate in parliament after the vote.
(Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk in Kiev and Paul Taylor in Paris; Editing by Timothy Heritage, Richard Balmforth and Alastair Macdonald)