The party headed by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych swept elections to regional councils throughout the country, an exit poll said Monday, in a landmark vote that the opposition and some observers claim was not fair.
Sunday's vote, the first election overseen by Yanukovych since he came to power in February, is viewed as a test of his commitment to democracy after his first fraud-marred grab at the presidency sparked the 2004 Orange Revolution that temporarily swept in the opposition. Critics say he is seeking to build an authoritarian state.
Those concerns led U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to stress the importance of democratic institutions and urge Yanukovych to conduct a clean vote in a phone call last month.
The exit poll, conducted by the Ukrainian arm of GfK, an international market research firm, said that Yanukovych's Party of Regions received 36.2 percent of votes in local councils, while the main opposition party headed by the heroine of the Orange Revolution, ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, got 13.1 percent.
The study polled some 44,000 respondents across the country and had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.
Official results were trickling in slowly from faraway vote-tallying commissions and a full count was expected by Friday.
Tymoshenko, who was defeated by Yanukovych in the February vote and later lost her job as premier, said the vote was fraudulent.
"These local elections are the dirtiest elections in Ukraine since independence," Hrihoriy Nemyria, Tymoshenko's top aide told The Associated Press, referring to the 1991 Soviet breakup.
Tymoshenko's office said she would not recognize results in three key provinces including the Kiev region because her party was denied representation there.
Yanukovych's office said it would comment on the vote once official results are known.
Western governments and monitoring organizations did not deploy full-fledged observing missions in Sunday's vote.
Opora, a Western-funded local election monitoring group that had 1500 observers in place, concluded that the vote was not democratic. The group said the opposition was not fairly represented in vote-counting bodies, that many candidates had been unlawfully excluded from election lists and that the balloting took place in a general atmosphere of mistrust.
"There were so many violations that we cannot say that it was democratic, fair and open," said Opora spokesman Dmitry Gnap.
Pawel Kowal, a European parliamentarian, expressed concern that election legislation had been changed shortly before the vote. The changes included limiting the opposition's participation in vote-counting and introducing a law that effectively forced Tymoshenko to change her party name to a less recognizable one.
Since he came to power, Yanukovych has eroded major democratic achievements of the Orange Revolution, moving to restrict anti-government rallies, to probe civil society groups, to limit media freedoms and to tinker with the constitution to boost his powers.
Yanukovych calls himself a democrat and says he needs the extra powers to implement painful economic reforms.