Ukrainians head to polls in presidential vote

People in the crisis-hit former Soviet republic heading to polling stations on Sunday, three months after the ousting of former President Viktor Yanukovich

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Ukrainian polling stations opened on Sunday, in a presidential election seen as essential in stabilizing the crisis-hit nation.

The vote, which is being held three months after the toppling of former President Viktor Yanukovich after major protests in the capital Kiev, will end this evening, when exit polls will indicate a result ahead of an official outcome on Monday.

Initially polls have shown billionaire Petro Poroshenko – known as the “chocolate king” because of his large confectionary company – is far ahead of 20 other candidates, but is short of the absolute majority needed to win in the first round. A runoff set for June 15 is expected to then take place.

Poroshenko’s main rival is former prime minister and fellow billionaire Yulia Tymoshenko.

Shut in the east

Voters will find many polling stations shut in the east, where armed pro-Moscow separatists are trying to block an election they say is illegitimate.

European election monitors have largely pulled out of the Donetsk region, citing a separatist campaign of “terror” against Ukrainian officials.

Despite this, Spencer Oliver, the secretary general of Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe parliamentary assembly assured that Ukrainian elections will be recognized legitimate “as the expression of the will of the majority of people,” local English language daily The Kyiv Post reported on Saturday.

Sunday’s ballot is taking place despite deadly fighting in the east, where pro-Russia insurgents have seized government buildings and are clashing with government forces.

Hostile neighbour

The rebels, who have declared two sprawling regions of Donetsk and Luhansk independent, have said they would not allow the vote, which they described as an election in “a neighboring country,” according to the Associated Press.

Police can ensure order and security at polling stations in just nine of the 34 electoral districts in the east, Ukraine’s deputy interior minister Serhiy Yerovyi.

Kiev’s interim government and the West accuse Russian of backing the uprising in the east after it annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March, although Moscow denies the accusations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday said the Kremlin would “respect the choice of the Ukrainian people” and would be ready to work with the winner, in an apparent bid to ease the worst crisis in relations with the West since the Cold War and avoid a new round of Western sanctions.

Around 35 million of the former Soviet republic’s 45 million-strong population are eligible to vote.

Heated crisis

Six months of heated crisis have galvanized extremist sentiments both among those who regard Russia as their protector and the nationalists who despise Russia’s influence.

Deadly attacks and ambushes this week against Ukrainian soldiers have shown that the eastern separatists are prepared for significant violence. Pro-Europe protesters, meanwhile, are still camped out in Kiev’s main square and the nationalist Svoboda party has a substantial presence in parliament.

The president will also have to struggle with Ukraine’s economy, hobbled by widespread corruption and a $3.5 billion debt to Russia for natural gas imports.

Yanukovich’s regime is widely believed to have siphoned off billions more for officials’ personal gain. The country got a temporary boost from a $17 billion loan package from the International Monetary Fund, but it will need to make painful economic reforms.

(With the Associated Press and Reuters)