Exit polls suggested candy tycoon Petro Poroshenko won Ukraine's presidential election in the first round Sunday, a ballot that took place amid weeks of fighting in eastern regions where pro-Russia 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. But nationwide, about 60 percent of the electorate turned out, the central elections commission said.
Poroshenko, viewing the exit polls as definitive evidence of victory, said his first steps as president would be to visit the eastern industrial region of Donbass — home to Ukraine's coal mines — and "put an end to war, chaos, crime and bring peace to the Ukrainian land."
Long lines of voters snaked around polling stations in Kiev, the pro-Western capital, but heavily armed pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine intimidated locals by smashing ballot boxes, shutting down polling centers and issuing threats.
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.
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.
At a distant second was former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko with 12.9 percent, the poll showed. Full results are expected Monday in the election that authorities in Kiev hope will be a critical step toward resolving Ukraine's protracted crisis.
"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," Tymoshenko said after the polls closed. "I think this is the evidence of the strength of our nation."
The exit poll, which surveyed 17,000 voters at 400 precincts, claimed a margin of error of 2 percentage points, indicating Poroshenko 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 Initiatives Foundation.
President Barack Obama praised Ukrainians for participating in the presidential voting "despite provocations and violence" — especially those who cast ballots in the east. Obama said the U.S. was eager to work with Ukraine's next president, supports Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity and rejects Russia's "occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea."
The election came three months after the country's pro-Russia leader fled in February, chased from power by months of protests over corruption and his rejection of a pact with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Moscow, and two months after Russia's annexation of Crimea.
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.
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.
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 — 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 AP reporter heard heavy gunfire Sunday in the Luhansk town of Novoaidar.
Sergei Melnichuk, a Ukrainian army battalion commander in Novoaidar, said about 50 armed pro-Russia rebels attacked a polling station trying to seize ballots but government forces thwarted the move and captured 13 rebels. The Interfax-Ukraine news agency quoted the deputy interior minister as saying one person was killed in the fighting.
Yet some parts of the Donetsk region remain under government control so voting did take place.
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."
8:24 a.m.: Election underway in Ukraine, but blocked in restive east
Ukrainians began voting Sunday in a presidential election marred by violence and all but cancelled in eastern cities, where pro-Russian separatists have shut polling places and threatened election officials.
The election is being called the most important for Ukraine since the nation won independence from Moscow 23 years ago, Reuters reported.
Around 20 candidates are on the ballot, with chocolate magnate Petro Poroshenko as the overwhelming favorite. If he fails to win 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held June 15.
His closest — but still distant — competitor is Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister who has been linked to allegations of corruption, as The Globe and Mail and other news outlets report.
The vote comes three months after the ouster of Ukraine's pro-Russia president, Viktor Yanukovych, who was driven from the country after rejecting closer ties with Europe.
No reports of violence have come from the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk early Sunday, but "pro-Russia insurgents were trying to block voting by snatching ballot boxes and patrolling polling stations," the Associated Press said.
That peace could be disturbed later in the day, when separatists plan a large demonstration outside Donetsk city hall, the building they have occupied along with other government buildings, reports NPR's Corey Flintoff for our Newscast desk.
Pro-Ukraine miners are planning a demonstration, possibly in the same location, raising the possibility of clashes, he said.
All polling places in Donetsk city are closed, according to Flintoff. Election observers from the Committee for Open Democracy were planning to go to the port city of Mariupol, in the Donetsk region, where security was expected to be good, he says.
"That has all changed now," says Flintoff. One of the chief election observers reports that "his team is at the airport because they've been ordered to withdraw for security purposes," he says.
He says teams of armed separatists are roaming the streets in Donetsk.
At this point, the situation here is very uncertain and insecure," Flintoff reports. "We don't think there is going to be any voting, and there is in fact the possibility of violence."
The absence of votes in the east could be grounds for Russian President Vladimir Putin to question the results, even though he pledged last week to respect the people's will.
Voting began at 8 a.m. (1 a.m. EDT) and will end 12 hours later, with official results expected Monday.