Western observers on Monday slammed the conduct of Ukraine's parliamentary election held Sunday, calling it a "disappointment" and a "step backwards" for democracy.
In unusually forthright language, observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe criticized the conduct of the campaign before the polls opened and the lack of transparency in the vote calculations after the polls closed. This election, they said, was less fair than earlier votes in the country.
"Democratic progress appears to have reversed in Ukraine," said Walburga Habsburg Douglas, leader of OSCE's group of short-term observers.
A delegation from the International Republican Institute was particularly critical of a decision by Ukraine's Central Election Commission to not release precinct-by-precinct vote totals.
The ruling Party of Regions has taken a strong lead in results released so far — markedly stronger than exit polls from Sunday's balloting would suggest. That sort of discrepancy led to the demonstrations that became the Orange Revolution in 2004, but street protests this time are unlikely. Analysts describe Ukrainian voters as jaded and disillusioned with all parties; turnout was 58 percent.
Nevertheless, as a precaution a judge in Kiev has banned outdoors protests there for two weeks.
The OSCE observers, in a news conference Monday in Kiev, criticized the use of government resources on behalf of the Party of Regions, the inability of opposition candidates to get television air time, the deployment of oligarchs' money to influence the campaign and the imprisonment of two opposition leaders, Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuriy Lutsenko.
Audrey Glover, head of the OSCE's long-term observer group, said the government had acted in a "climate of impunity."
Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., who led the IRI observers, said the government's use of the tax police to intimidate television outlets was a serious concern.
"Ukrainians deserved better from these elections," said Andreas Gross, of the OSCE delegation. "Citizens lost their ownership of the election process, as well as their trust in it."
Final results won't be tabulated until November. Voters on Sunday chose half the parliament by party list and half by individual district.
As of Monday afternoon, with 60 percent of the votes counted, the Party of Regions had won 34 percent of the party ticket, Ukraine's election commission reported.
Tymoshenko's opposition party, Batkivshchyna, was reported to have received 22 percent; the Communist Party, 15 percent; a new party, UDAR, led by boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, 12 percent; and the nationalist group Svoboda, 9 percent.
The commission said the Party of Regions had won 117 of the 225 district votes, so far. Allied with the Communists, it is nearly certain to control the next parliament.
The imprisonment of Tymoshenko, a leader of the Orange Revolution, a former prime minister and the opponent of President Viktor Yanukovych in the 2010 election, has elicited considerable criticism from the European Union, as well as the United States.
Habsburg Douglas criticized the "very unfair exclusion of Mrs. Tymoshenko and Mr. Lutsenko," a former member of Tymoshenko's cabinet.
"One should not have to go to prison," Habsburg Douglas said, to meet with leaders of the opposition.