Ukrainians voted on Sunday in a presidential election billed as the most important since they won their independence from Moscow 23 years ago, but armed pro-Russian separatists disrupted voting in eastern regions of the former Soviet Republic.
Early signs pointed to a high turnout in sunny weather in an election where the main candidates, including front-runner Petro Poroshenko, a confectionery magnate, are promising closer ties with the West in defiance of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
The absence of over 15 percent of the electorate, in Russian-annexed Crimea and two eastern regions where fighting with pro-Moscow rebels continued on Saturday, may mar any result – and leave the Kremlin questioning Victor’s legitimacy, for all Putin’s new pledge to respect the people’s will.
Voting began in most of Ukraine at 8 a.m. (1 a.m. EDT) and will end 12 hours later, when exit polls will indicate a result ahead of an official outcome on Monday.
Only about 20 percent of the polling stations in the heavily industrialized, Russian-speaking Donetsk region, which has 3.3 million registered voters, were working as of 9:30 a.m. (2.30 a.m. EDT), authorities said. None were open in the city of Donetsk.
“These are extremely important elections. We have to make sure Ukraine becomes a truly independent country, a powerful independent state that nobody will be able to push around,” said pensioner Mikhailo Belyk, 65, casting his ballot at a crowded polling station in a southeast district of the capital Kiev.
Sounding an equally upbeat note, businessman Viktor Sypchenko, 45, said: “I am voting for my children and their future. I hope we can break free from our awful past.”
The picture emerging in the east was more confused. European election monitors have largely pulled out of the Donetsk region for their own safety, citing a campaign of “terror” by pro-Russian separatists against Ukrainian electoral officials.
‘THINGS ARE BAD’
At a school in a Donetsk suburb, pensioner Grigory Nikitayich, 72, was unhappy about being denied the right to vote for Poroshenko. “I don’t even know where I can vote. No one has said anything. What kind of polls are these? Things are bad.”
Others also complained of being prevented from voting, in some cases because ballot papers had not been delivered due to security concerns after at least 20 people were killed in the region during fighting over recent days.
Polls make Poroshenko, known as the “chocolate king” because of his confectionery empire, overwhelming favorite to win Sunday’s election. The biggest question is whether he can take over 50 percent to win outright. If not, a run-off vote will be held on June 15.
He was a strong backer of the protests against Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovich last winter and has sought a quick victory by warning that new unrest might prevent a second round.
His closest, if distant, rival is Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister. She remains a divisive figure to many, more closely linked than Poroshenko with the economic failures and graft that have blighted post-Soviet Ukraine.
“It is time to hold a referendum on joining NATO to restore peace in Ukraine,” said Tymoshenko after voting in her native city of Dnipropetrovsk in central Ukraine. Russia is fiercely opposed to Ukraine joining the Western military alliance.
As Yanukovich’s fiercest rival, Tymoshenko may benefit from the fact that few of the 5 million voters in his eastern power base regions of Donetsk and Luhansk may be able to cast ballots for any of the 21 candidates.
Interim Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk urged Ukrainians to hand the new president a strong mandate to forge closer ties with.