Exit polls suggested candy tycoon Petro Poroshenko won Ukraine's presidential election in the first round Sunday, a ballot that took place amid weeks of fighting in eastern regions where pro-Russia separatists have seized government buildings and battled government troops.
The rebels had vowed to block the ballot in the east and less than 20 per cent of the polling stations were open there. But nationwide, about 60 per cent of the electorate turned out, the central elections commission said.
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Poroshenko, viewing the exit polls as definitive evidence of victory, said his first steps as president would be to visit the eastern industrial region of Donbass — home to Ukraine's coal mines — and "put an end to war, chaos, crime and bring peace to the Ukrainian land."
Long lines of voters snaked around polling stations in Kyiv, the pro-Western capital, but heavily armed pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine intimidated locals by smashing ballot boxes, shutting down polling centres and issuing threats.
The exit poll for Sunday's election, conducted by three respected Ukrainian survey agencies, found the 48-year-old candy tycoon Poroshenko getting 55.9 per cent of the vote.
Poroshenko ducked the question whether he was prepared to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin but said Kyiv would like to negotiate a new security treaty with Moscow.
At a distant second was former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko with 12.9 per cent, the poll showed. Full results are expected Monday in the election that authorities in Kyiv hope will be a critical step toward resolving Ukraine's protracted crisis.
"I would like to congratulate Ukraine with the fact that despite the current aggression by the Kremlin and the desire to break this voting, the election happened and was democratic and fair," Tymoshenko said after the polls closed. "I think this is the evidence of the strength of our nation."
After the polls closed, Poroshenko appeared on a stage beside former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, who at one point last year was leading in national polls for president. He later decided to support Poroshenko and run for Kyiv mayor instead. Results of that race were not available Sunday, but Poroshenko told journalists that their own private survey showed Klitschko winning the race.
Baird issues statement
Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird released a statement after the voting closed.
"On behalf of all Canadians, I wish to extend my congratulations to the citizens of Ukraine who peacefully exercised their sovereign right to vote during this critical phase in their country's democratic history. Canada looks forward to the official announcement of the elections' final results.
"The long lines of people who came out to vote in these elections are an undeniable affirmation of how deeply Ukrainians value freedom and democracy, and demonstrate a clear commitment to building a better future, free from Russian-sponsored subversion and violence," he said.
However, the elections were not without challenges, Baird said.
"Pro-Russian separatists and their supporters tried, unsuccessfully, to use violence and intimidation as a political strategy to prevent them from taking place in certain parts of Eastern Ukraine," Baird said, adding that Canada condemns these actions.
Putin promises to work with winner
The exit poll, which surveyed 17,000 voters at 400 precincts, claimed a margin of error of 2 percentage points, indicating Poroshenko passed the 50-per-cent mark needed to win without a runoff. It was conducted by the Razumkov Center, Kiev International Sociology Institute and the Democratic Initiatives Foundation.
President Barack Obama praised Ukrainians for participating in the presidential voting "despite provocations and violence" — especially those who cast ballots in the east. Obama said the U.S. was eager to work with Ukraine's next president, supports Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity and rejects Russia's "occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea."
The election came three months after the country's pro-Russia leader fled in February, chased from power by months of protests over corruption and his rejection of a pact with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Moscow, and two months after Russia's annexation of Crimea.
Putin has promised to "respect the choice of the Ukrainian people" and said he would work with the winner, in an apparent bid to ease Russia's worst crisis with the West since the Cold War and avoid a new round of Western sanctions. The interim Kyiv government and the West have accused Russia of backing the separatist uprising. Moscow has denied the accusations.
Unlike many other Ukrainian billionaires, Poroshenko did not make his fortune in murky post-Soviet privatizations but instead built his chocolate empire brick by brick. His Willy Wonka-like chocolate stores and candies are on sale in every kiosk across the country, helping lead to the perception that he is the "good tycoon."
Many voters appreciate Poroshenko's pragmatism and his apparent knack for compromise. Poroshenko strongly backs closer ties with the 28-nation EU, but also speaks about the need to normalize ties with Russia.
"He is a very smart man who can work hard compared to others, and he is also a businessman and knows that compromises are necessary even if unpleasant," said 55-year old Kyiv teacher Larisa Kirichenko.
Plenty of disruption
Yet the question of who was able to vote Sunday loomed large over the democratic process. Some 35.5 million Ukrainians were eligible to vote, but separatists in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions — which have 5.1 million voters — rejected the vote because they say they are no longer part of Ukraine.
The regional administration in Donetsk said only 426 of 2,430 polling stations in the region were open Sunday, and none in the city of Donetsk, which has 1 million people. There was no voting in the city of Luhansk either, but some stations were open in the wider Luhansk region.
It was also not clear if voters from Crimea were able to travel to other areas in Ukraine to vote.
There were plenty of disruptions Sunday in Donetsk. A rebel convoy carrying several hundred heavily armed men drove through the city Sunday, then climbed out, stood to attention and shot their guns into the air as several thousand supporters cheered.
Outside the Donetsk administration building, which has been occupied by rebels since early April, a group of masked men drove up carrying confiscated ballot boxes and made a show of smashing them in front of news cameras.
Another team of insurgents visited polling stations in Donetsk to make sure they were closed. One polling station in the city opened but minutes later gunmen arrived and forced its election commission out. Gunmen also stormed the village council in Artemivka and set that polling station ablaze, the Ukrainian Interior Ministry said.
An AP reporter heard heavy gunfire Sunday in the Luhansk town of Novoaidar.
Sergei Melnichuk, a Ukrainian army battalion commander in Novoaidar, said about 50 armed pro-Russia rebels attacked a polling station trying to seize ballots but government forces thwarted the move and captured 13 rebels. The Interfax-Ukraine news agency quoted the deputy interior minister as saying one person was killed in the fighting.
Yet some parts of the Donetsk region remain under government control so voting did take place.
In the Azov Sea port of Mariupol, 202 out of the city's 216 polling stations were working. Rinat Akhmetov, the billionaire metals tycoon who is Ukraine's richest man, had his factory workers there join police a week ago to patrol the city and evict the pro-Russia insurgents from government buildings.
"I want order in this country. We can't continue without a president. We need order," voter Gennadiy Menshykov said in Mariupol.
In the town of Krasnoarmeisk, in the western Donetsk region, a trickle of people came to cast ballots. Ivan Sukhostatov, 37, said he had voted for peace.
"We came to show that this whole situation is contrived," he said. "One side are called terrorists, the others get called fascists. But we have no differences between us. We have one faith, we speak one language. We just want there to be peace."