An exit poll showed that billionaire candy-maker Petro Poroshenko won Ukraine's presidential election outright Sunday in the first round — a vote that authorities hoped would unify the fractured nation.
Long lines snaked around polling stations in Kiev for the vote but in Ukraine's troubled east, heavily armed pro-Russia rebels intimidated voters by smashing ballot boxes and blocking off voting centers.
Sunday's ballot took place despite weeks of fighting in the sprawling eastern regions that form Ukraine's industrial heartland, where pro-Russia insurgents have seized government buildings, battled government troops and vowed to disrupt the ballot.
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 percent of the vote.
In a distant second was former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko with 12.9 percent. Full results are expected to be announced Monday in the election that could be a critical step toward resolving Ukraine's crisis.
The poll, which surveyed some 17,000 voters at 400 precincts, claimed a margin of error of 2 percentage points, indicating Poroshenko clearly passed the 50-percent mark needed to win without a runoff. It was conducted by the Razumkov Center, Kiev International Sociology Institute and the Democratic
The election came three months after the country's pro-Russia leader fled, 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.
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 — have vowed to stop the vote.
Military operations had eased for the day, but an AP reporter heard heavy gunfire in the afternoon in the Luhansk region town of Novoaidar.
Little voting was taking place in the east. 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 appeared to be open in the wider Luhansk region, according to local officials.
"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 Kiev, where many people wore traditional embroidered shirts in a sign of Ukrainian 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 Russia's worst crisis with the West since the Cold War and avoid a new round of Western sanctions.
Many voters appreciate Poroshenko's pragmatism and his apparent knack for compromise, making him stand out in a political environment long dominated by intransigent figures. 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, who also voiced hope that Poroshenko will negotiate a peaceful solution to the problems in the east.
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