KIEV, Ukraine (AP) -- Long lines snaked around polling stations in Kiev on Sunday for Ukraine's critical presidential election, a stark contrast to the troubled east where heavily armed pro-Russian rebels intimidated voters by smashing ballot boxes and blocking access to voting centers.
The election came three months after the ouster of the country's pro-Russia leader, who was chased from power by months of protests over corruption and his decision to reject a pact with the European Union and forge closer ties with Moscow.
There were no immediate signs of clashes on Sunday after weeks of intense battles in a deadly insurgency. But it also appeared little voting was taking place in the east: The regional administration in Donetsk said that 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 Luhansk, the center of the neighboring province, but some stations appeared to be open across the region, according to local officials.
Polls have shown 48-year old billionaire candy-maker Petro Poroshenko far ahead of the other 20 candidates, but short of the absolute majority needed to win in the first round, so a runoff is expected on June 15.
"I am convinced that this election must finally bring peace to Ukraine, stop lawlessness, stop chaos, stop bandit terror in the east," Poroshenko said after casting his ballot in central Kiev, where many people wore the traditional embroidered shirts that have become a symbol of patriotism.
"People with weapons must be removed from Ukrainian streets, Ukrainian villages and cities," Poroshenko said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin promised Friday to "respect the choice of the Ukrainian people" and said he would work with the winner, in an apparent bid to ease the worst crisis in relations with the West since the Cold War and to avoid a new round of Western sanctions.
Many voters appreciate Poroshenko's pragmatism and his apparent knack for compromise, making him stand out in the nation's political environment long dominated by intransigent figures. Poroshenko strongly backs closer ties with the 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, who voiced hope that Poroshenko will negotiate a peaceful solution in the east. The long lines at some Kiev polling stations indicated a solid turnout.
Poroshenko's nearest challenger is Yulia Tymoshenko, the charismatic and divisive former prime minister. The 53-year-old blond-braided heroine of the 2004 Orange Revolution, who spent 2 1/2 years in prison on abuse of office charges denounced as political by the West, is still admired by many for her energy and will, but detested by others over her role in political infighting that weakened the country.
Tymoshenko said after casting her ballot that Ukraine must join the European Union and NATO.
"I am convinced that Ukraine can be strong, happy and prosperous if it becomes a member of the European Union," she said. "It is time to conduct a referendum on NATO membership in order to bring peace back to the country."
Vladislav Golub, a 31-year old lawyer, said he voted for Tymoshenko because "Ukraine must stop being an oligarchic state and be part of Europe, instead of serving the interests of the Russian Federation."
Sunday's ballot is taking place despite deadly violence in the sprawling eastern regions that form Ukraine's industrial heartland, where pro-Russia insurgents have seized government buildings and fought government forces in intense battles that have raged for a more than a month and killed scores.
The interim Kiev government and the West are accusing Russia of backing the uprising after it annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March. Moscow has denied the accusations.
The rebels, who have declared the Donetsk and Luhansk regions independent, have pledged not to allow the vote, which they describe as an election in "a neighboring country." They have seized or blocked election offices and intimidated election officials and voters in the regions that have a combined population of 6.6 million. Ukraine's population is 46 million.
Ukrainian election officials said they have received as little as 26 percent of the election registers for the Donetsk region and 16 percent for the Luhansk region. Ukraine's deputy interior minister, Serhiy Yarovyi, said Saturday that police are ready to ensure order and security at polling stations in just nine of the 34 electoral districts in the east.
In the center of Donetsk, a team of insurgents was seen visiting polling stations to make sure they were closed. At one station in a school, Vyacheslav Kucher, 36, tested the front door and turned to his comrades to give the thumbs-up sign after finding it locked.
"I am checking to see everything is normal, to see that there is no nonsense, so this junta doesn't come to power," Kucher said. "We want to make sure nothing is working, because these are illegal authorities and we don't want this outrage."
Outside the Donetsk regional administration building, which has been occupied by government opponents since early April, a group of masked men drove up carrying confiscated ballot boxes and made a show of smashing them in front of a journalist's camera.
One polling station in the city opened in the morning, but minutes later a group of gunmen arrived and forced the election commission out, its chief, Nadia Melnyk, said on Ukraine's Channel 5.
A convoy of an armored personnel carrier and seven trucks carrying several hundred heavily armed men drove through central Donetsk early Sunday afternoon. The gunmen got out of the trucks, stood to attention and gave shots in the air in jubilation as a crowd of several thousand supporters cheered them and chanted: "Heroes!"
The Ukrainian Interior Ministry said that in the village of Artemivka, in the Donetsk region, gunmen stormed the building of a village council hosting a polling station and set it ablaze.
In the city of Slovyansk in the Donetsk region, which has been one of the main centers of fighting in the past weeks, artillery shelling -- apparently from government forces -- badly damaged a psychiatric hospital late Saturday, shattering its roof and damaging its walls.
An Italian photojournalist, 30-year old Andrea Rocchelli, was killed Saturday near Slovyansk, the Italian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. Insurgents said Rocchelli died in mortar shelling by government forces and that his Russian translator also was killed.
Some parts of the Donetsk region remain under greater government control and voting took place in those locations.
In the Azov Sea port of Mariupol, 202 out of 216 polling stations were working, indicating that the situation has been brought under some degree of government control there. Just over a week ago, Rinat Akhmetov, the billionaire metals tycoon who is Ukraine's richest man, had workers from his factories in Mariupol join police to patrol the city and evict pro-Russia insurgents from the government buildings they seized.
"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 west of the Donetsk region, a trickle of people came out to cast their ballots in a local school.
Ivan Sukhostatov, 37, said he had voted for peace in the region.
"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, for us to finally have a legitimate president and for all this to come to an end."
___Leonard reported from Donetsk, Ukraine. Sasha Zemlianichenko in Slovyansk, Dmitry Kozlov in Mariupol, Ed Brown in Krasnoarmeisk and Nataliya Vasilyeva 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