KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Exit polls suggested candy tycoon Petro Poroshenko was elected president Sunday in the first round of balloting in the bitterly divided country, and he vowed "to bring peace to the Ukrainian land."
The billionaire who supports strong ties with Europe but also wants to mend relations with Russia claimed victory after a vote that took place amid weeks of fighting in eastern Ukraine where pro-Moscow separatists have seized government buildings and battled government troops.
The rebels had vowed to block the ballot in the east, and less than 20 percent of the polling stations were open there after gunmen intimidated locals by smashing ballot boxes, shutting down polling centers and issuing threats.
But nationwide, about 60 percent of 35.5 million eligible voters turned out, the central elections commission said, and long lines snaked around polling stations in the capital of Kiev.
The exit polls, conducted by three respected Ukrainian survey agencies, found the 48-year-old Poroshenko getting 55.9 percent of the vote in the field of 21 candidates. A distant second was former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko with 12.9 percent, the poll showed. Full results are expected Monday, but if that margin holds, Poroshenko would avoid a runoff election next month with the second-place finisher.
Viewing the exit polls as definitive evidence of victory, Poroshenko said his first steps as president would be to visit the Donbass eastern industrial region, home to Ukraine's coal mines — and "put an end to war, chaos, crime, and bring peace to the Ukrainian land."
He also promised a dialogue with residents of eastern Ukraine and said he was ready to extend amnesty to those who did not commit any crimes.
"For those people who don't take (up) weapons, we are always ready for negotiations to guarantee them security, to guarantee them defending of their rights, including speaking the language they want," he said in English.
The election, which came three months after pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych was chased from office by crowds following months of street protests and allegations of corruption, was seen as a critical step toward resolving Ukraine's protracted crisis.
Since his ouster, Russia has annexed the Crimea in southern Ukraine, the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk have declared their independence from Kiev, and the interim Ukrainian government has launched an offensive in the east to quash an uprising that has left dozens dead.
Poroshenko ducked the question whether he was prepared to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin but said Kiev would like to negotiate a new security treaty with Moscow.
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 Kiev government and the West have accused Russia of backing the separatist uprising. Moscow has denied the accusations.
President Barack Obama praised Ukrainians for participating in the voting "despite provocations and violence" — especially those who cast ballots in the east. Obama said the U.S. was eager to work with the next president, supports Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity and rejects Russia's "occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea."
U.S. House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., called the election "a clear victory for Ukrainian democracy and a big setback to Vladimir Putin's efforts to divide the country."
Tymoshenko, the blond-braided, divisive heroine of the 2004 Orange Revolution, praised the courage of the voters.
"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," said Tymoshenko, who spent 2 ½ years in prison on abuse of office charges. "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 Kiev mayor instead. Results of that race were not available Sunday, but Poroshenko told journalists that their own private survey showed Klitschko winning the race.
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 Kiev teacher Larisa Kirichenko.
Anastasia Fedchenko of Kiev said Poroshenko "is not the worst candidate that Ukrainians could have elected."
The question of who was able to vote loomed large over the democratic process. 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 Associated Press reporter heard heavy gunfire Sunday in Novoaidar in the Luhansk region.
Sergei Melnichuk, a commander of a pro-Ukrainian militia in Novoaidar, said about 50 armed rebels attacked a polling station trying to seize ballots, but government forces thwarted the move and captured 13 of them. The Interfax-Ukraine news agency quoted the deputy interior minister as saying one person was killed in the fighting.
Voting did take place in some parts of the Donetsk region that remain under government control.
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."
The Ukrainian exit polls surveyed 17,000 voters at 400 precincts and indicated Poroshenko passed the 50 percent mark needed to win without a runoff. It claimed a margin of error of 2 percentage points and was conducted by the Razumkov Center, Kiev International Sociology Institute and the Democratic Initiatives Foundation.
___Leonard reported from Donetsk, Ukraine. Nebi Qena in Novoaidar, Alexander Zemlianichenko in Slovyansk, Dmitry Kozlov in Mariupol, Ed Brown in Krasnoarmeisk and Maria Danilova in Kiev contributed to this report.
Russian state TV reports far-right Pravy Sektor leader Yarosh got 37% in Ukraine's election, not the 1% he did get: https://t.co/YnURXg1fcH
— max seddon (@maxseddon) May 25, 2014
Boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko has won the mayor's race in the Ukrainian capital.
"I can say with confidence that according to our information Vitali Klitschko will be the new mayor of Kiev," billionaire tycoon Petro Poroshenko said after declaring his own victory in the presidential election.
"I congratulate him," he said at a press conference alongside Klitschko.
The burly 42-year-old heavyweight boxer turned opposition hero had been in the running for the presidency but dropped out of the race in March to support Poroshenko.
Mayoral elections were held in several cities on Sunday in tandem with the presidential ballot.
On behalf of all Americans, I congratulate the people of Ukraine for making their voices heard by voting in their presidential election today. Despite provocations and violence, millions of Ukrainians went to the polls throughout the country, and even in parts of eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatist groups sought to disenfranchise entire regions, some courageous Ukrainians still were able to cast their ballots. We commend the resolve of all those who participated, as well as the efforts of the Ukrainian government to conduct these elections in the face of those threats.
Throughout the last few months, the Ukrainian people have repeatedly demonstrated their desire to choose their leaders without interference and to live in a democracy where they can determine their own future free of violence and intimidation. This election is another important step forward in the efforts of the Ukrainian government to unify the country and reach out to all of its citizens to ensure their concerns are addressed and aspirations met.
The United States looks forward to working with the next President, as well as the democratically elected parliament, to support Ukraine’s efforts to enact important political and economic reforms. We also continue to support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, condemn and reject Russia’s occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea, and remain committed to working with Ukraine and other partners to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
Ukraine's Petro Poroshenko, set to be the new president after an election on Sunday, said there should also be a parliamentary election this year.
He also said he would never recognize Russia's "occupation of Crimea". Asked about relations with Russia, he said the "sovereignty and territorial integrity" of Ukraine were paramount for him.
Boxer and soon-to-be Kiev mayor Klitschko called on the Euromaiden protesters who are still camping out in Kiev to leave their barricades.
— Alec Luhn (@ASLuhn) May 25, 2014
Who is Petro Poroshenko? GlobalPost describes Ukraine's next president as a billionaire who once served in ousted President Viktor Yanukovych’s administration. He advocates Ukraine’s European integration and was closely allied with the disgraced Orange Revolution-era coalition.
Experts say he’s a smooth political operator who’s played his cards well — and that his presidency may be about as good as it gets in this country’s tainted political landscape.
“If you take any one of the well-known politicians, you’ll find they all have a history,” says Iryna Bekeshkina, a political sociologist and director of the Kyiv-based Democratic Initiatives Foundation.
“They’re not ideal, but voters choose based on whatever they’re offered.”
Read the full profile here.
Moving to go by Ukraine Mission in NY & see throngs lined up to vote, singing freedom songs. 5K expected there today. pic.twitter.com/3Y1fIKGZTT
— Samantha Power (@AmbassadorPower) May 25, 2014
Poroshenko declares victory in #Ukraine vote, Tymoshenko concedes defeat.
— Alexander Marquardt (@MarquardtA) May 25, 2014
More from Reuters on the results from the exit poll:
(Reuters) - An exit poll on Sunday indicated that Ukrainian confectionery tycoon Petro Poroshenko was elected president after securing an absolute majority in the first round of voting.
The poll gave 48-year-old Poroshenko 55.9 percent, well ahead of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko in second place with 12.9 percent. If confirmed by results on Monday, this outcome would avert the need for a runoff vote next month.
The National Exit Poll 2014, conducted by a consortium of Democratic Initiative, the Kiev International Sociology Institute (KMIS) and the Razumkov Ukrainian Centre for Economic and Political Research, had an error margin of 3.5 percent.
— Breaking News (@BreakingNews) May 25, 2014
Kyiv Post reports at least one dead and one wounded in a shootout in the eastern Ukraine.
— Kyiv Post (@KyivPost) May 25, 2014
— Olaf Koens (@obk) May 25, 2014
Ukraine's border service confirms Russian troops' withdrawal from border region. Cheers.
— xaviercolas (@xaviercolas) May 25, 2014
The aspiring political candidate and Star Wars enthusiast known to dress in a Darth Vader costume at Ukrainian political events has reportedly been barred from voting for refusal to remove his helmet.
— Mark MacKinnon (@markmackinnon) May 25, 2014
In an excellent overview of the challenges ahead for Ukraine's new government, Max Seddon explains that the biggest question is less who will win than how much of the country they will have left to govern.
Seddon writes in Buzzfeed:
The eastern provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk — strongholds for disgraced former president Viktor Yanukovych until he fled the country in February — are now mired in almost total chaos, leaving the region on the brink of an abyss from which it may not be able to return. Presidential candidates openly fret that Ukraine’s troubled 21-year existence as an independent state — long mired by corruption and infighting and now buckling under pressure from Moscow — may no longer be tenable as we know it.
Read the full story here.
Reuters put together this useful list of the main candidates running for president in today's election.
* PETRO POROSHENKO (48)
Poroshenko, a confectionery tycoon, is the front runner in the race, with some opinion surveys indicating he may even win outright in the first round.
He was the only Ukrainian oligarch to move swiftly to support the popular uprising against Yanukovich which began in central Kiev in late November, devoting his '5th Channel' TV station to coverage of the protests.
A seasoned politician who served as foreign minister and economy minister in previous administrations, he owns a chain of confectionery shops that have put the billionaire on Ukraine's top 10 rich list, earning him the nickname "Chocolate King".
Poroshenko, whose chocolate manufacturer Roshen is one of the world's top 20 confectionery firms, backs Ukraine's integration with the West and his business has been targeted by Russia.
* YULIA TYMOSHENKO (53)
Born in Ukraine's industrial east, Tymoshenko was Ukraine's prime minister for a short stint in 2005 and then from late 2007 till 2010, when Yanukovich beat her in a bitter run-off vote for the presidency. Brought to power by pro-Western street protests known as the Orange Revolution, her time in office was marked by bitter infighting involving her erstwhile Orange ally Viktor Yushchenko who had become president.
Wearing a peasant-style hair braid that became her trademark and with strong organizational powers, Tymoshenko, a fiery public speaker, became a force in Ukrainian politics. But she was dogged by involvement in gas deals in the 1990s from which she made a fortune and which gave her the nickname of "gas princess". Seen by many as divisive and too sharp of tongue, she can inspire loathing as well as loyalty among Ukrainians.
Tymoshenko was convicted and jailed for 2-1/2 years under Yanukovich for abuse of office, walking free only in February when her nemesis fled to Russia. But with the dynamics of the political establishment drastically changed by the Maidan revolution, she has failed to re-kindle her old strong support.
Surveys put her in a distant second place.
* SERHIY TIGIPKO (54)
Tigipko is a banker and parliamentary deputy who has served in several governments, once as economy minister, and was at one time close to the ousted Yanukovich, serving as his campaign director for a short while in late 2004.
Seen as the third-placed candidate in opinion polls, Tigipko, whose main voting base is in the Russian-speaking east, is highly critical of Kiev's interim authorities for the way they have handled separatist rebellions there.
He says Kiev has not done enough to build bridges with people in the east or addressed legitimate grievances, particularly over Russian language rights, thereby opening up a space for the pro-Moscow separatists.
* MYKHAILO DOBKIN (44)
Dobkin, a businessman and former governor of the eastern city and region of Kharkiv, is the official candidate of the Party of Regions, once Ukraine's ruling party led by Yanukovich.
He fiercely criticized the pro-Europe street protests in Kiev and has questioned the legitimacy of Ukraine's interim government, but the expected disruption of Sunday's election in the eastern regions is likely to eat into his support.
His election campaign has been financed by Ukraine's richest man, coal and steel magnate Rinat Akhmetov, who has belatedly condemned the actions of the pro-Russian separatists and called on people in eastern Ukraine to retake control of their cities.
Dobkin is on a list of nearly 30 Ukrainians - also including Yanukovich - whose assets have been frozen by Switzerland over their role in the Ukraine crisis.
Read the full story here.
From Olaf Koens: Nice. Premier Yasteniuk stands in line at the polling station like everyone else.
Mooi. Premier Arseni Jatsjenjoek moet gewoon in de rij staan bij het stembureau. Zo hoort het. pic.twitter.com/54KKHkQWnT
— Olaf Koens (@obk) May 25, 2014
A video by Radio Free Europe captures presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko casting his vote and vowing that he will "begin a direct dialogue" with restive eastern regions.
And an epic rain and hail storm has just started in Kiev. Hailstones the size of marbles.
— Daniel Sandford (@BBCDanielS) May 25, 2014
About time to start wearing the bulletproof vest again in Kiev pic.twitter.com/DVKA28KsdJ
— Olaf Koens (@obk) May 25, 2014
It's hailing like hell! pic.twitter.com/qVkaklQI6E
— Nataliya Vasilyeva (@NatVasilyevaAP) May 25, 2014
The AP reports that an Italian journalist and his Russian interpreter have been killed while covering the fighting between pro-Russian separatists and the Army.
CNN's Jim Sciutto reports that the Ctl. Election Comm. is claiming a turnout of around 38%.
— Jim Sciutto (@jimsciutto) May 25, 2014