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Observers Hail Ukraine Election

International election observers overseeing Sunday's vote in Ukraine have hailed the exercise as a further consolidation of the country's democratic gains. The head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the main western election watchdog, says the vote had few of the problems witnessed during Ukraine's fraud-plagued presidential vote in 2004.

The International Election Observation Mission says Ukraine soundly demonstrated its commitment to democratic reform with Sunday's elections for parliament, regional councils and local mayors.

In a preliminary statement, the group said Sunday's vote was "free and fair."

Congressman Alcee Hastings, who served as the OSCE's president of short-term observers in Kiev, says the real winner of Sunday's vote is the Ukrainian people. "[Overall] fundamental and political rights were respected," he said. "This enabled voters to make informed choices between distinct alternatives and to express their will in a free and fair manner."

Hastings said observers characterized the campaign as competitive and dynamic, and said it got comprehensive coverage in the media. There was also a large number of partisan and non-partisan observers, who Hastings says further enhanced the votes transparency.

Hastings and others on the mission panel, noted that the election was not perfect. They say holding parliamentary and local elections at the same time complicated the task of election commissions, slowing both the voting and counting process.

But Hastings said Ukraine's election stands in stark contrast to what he called, the "so-called elections" in neighboring Belarus last weekend, which the OSCE also observed. "We determined that that election [in Belarus] was grossly unfair, certainly not free, and is being followed by government-directed violence and arrests against protesting citizens," he said.

The presidential election in Belarus sparked street demonstrations by the political opposition, which charges massive vote fraud. The protests lasted less than a week before they were put down by government force, with hundreds of opposition members and candidates beaten and jailed.

The vote count from Sunday's election in Ukraine continues, with first official results expected Tuesday.

But based on exit polls, a big win by pro-Russia candidate Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions is expected. Trailing a close second is former prime minister Yulia Timoshenko's bloc. And in third place is incumbent President Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party.

With no party likely to get an outright majority, furious back-room bargaining has begun on forming a coalition, which under new constitutional reforms, will have the power to pick the next prime minister.