DONETSK, Ukraine — Petro Poroshenko, the billionaire confectionery king of Ukraine, has claimed victory in a contentious presidential election seen as a crucial step to getting the country on a path to stability after six months of civil unrest and regional divisions that have threatened to split the nation.
In two exit polls on Sunday, Poroshenko, a former foreign affairs and economy minister, came out on top with an absolute majority. Despite many disruptions Sunday, about 60 percent of 35.5 million eligible voters turned out, according to the central election commission.
With votes from about 30 percent of precincts counted early Monday, Poroshenko was leading with 54 percent in the field of 21 candidates. Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was running a distant second with 13 percent. If his share remains above 50 percent, Poroshenko will avoid a runoff election next month with the second-place finisher. Full results are expected later Monday.
“All the polls show that the election has been completed in one round and the country has a new president,” Poroshenko told reporters late Sunday.
Forgoing a second round of voting will come as a relief for many Ukrainians, some of whom told Al Jazeera on Sunday that they care more about having a clear winner than seeing a particular candidate take the election.
“We’re tired of this anarchy,” said Roman Shabilov, a 63-year-old truck mechanic who cast his vote in Krasnoarmeysk at one of the few polling stations that were open in Ukraine’s volatile east. “I don’t know if he’s the best choice, but I voted for Poroshenko. They say he will win, and we just need a legitimate president as soon as possible to calm things down.”
Poroshenko on Sunday said that would be his first task as president. “The first steps that must be taken must focus on finishing the war, the chaos, and bring peace to a united Ukraine,” he said.
“A united Ukraine is the basis of my presidential program,” he added, recognizing the difficult task ahead of trying to unite the country of 46 million, which has teetered on the edge of civil war.
Many believe this was the most important election in the nation’s post-Soviet history. It was called a year early to replace the ousted Viktor Yanukovych and is seen as the first step toward stabilizing the deeply divided country after more than six months of civil unrest and eruptions of violence that have claimed hundreds of lives.
While the capital, Kiev, saw long lines and a reported record turnout at the polls, only about 20 percent of stations were operating in the heavily industrialized eastern part of the country, where pro-Russian separatists have declared the independent Donetsk People’s Republic.
In the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the heavily armed rebels denounced the election as a farce, saying an illegal junta controlling the central government in Kiev organized it.
Intimidation and threats preceded the election in these areas, where armed men earlier this week raided election commission centers, kidnapped the regional election commissioner and stole computers containing voter registration lists.
On the morning of the vote, tensions were high in Donetsk, a city of about 1 million and the center of the administrative region, or oblast. Not a single polling station was open in the city, and armed masked men still occupied the oblast administration building.
Election workers attempted to open one polling station in the city center on Sunday morning but were immediately blocked by about a dozen armed men who demanded that it be closed.
In the heat of the afternoon, Olexsandr Mordar, 46, a small-business owner, sat on a park bench in Donetsk’s leafy pedestrian strip on Pushkina Boulevard and explained why he wouldn’t cast his vote even if he could find an open polling station.
“The candidates are all the same people who have been stealing from this country for 23 years since independence,” he said. “It’s time to change the system, not just the faces of those in charge.”
Mordar, a supporter of the Donetsk’s People’s Republic, said he believed it was time to give up on Ukraine as a state.
“Ukraine was an experiment that didn’t work, and now it’s a state that is dying in civil war,” he said. “We can either live as part of Russia or live independently. But we can’t live like this and not with those people in Kiev.”
Mordar’s support for the pro-Russian rebels is consistent with many eastern Ukrainians but certainly not all of them. Divisions in Donetsk ran deep, with some voters frustrated by their inability to vote.
“Where can I vote? These guys with the guns think they can speak for the majority of us, when they are in fact just a small group of bandits and crooks trying to create their own criminal state at our expense,” said Vitaly Kanavolov, 23.
Eastern Ukrainians are mostly Russian speaking, and many favor closer ties with neighboring Russia, but 70 percent in recent polls said they supported a united Ukraine.
In the small mining city of Krasnoarmeysk, where Shabilov cast his vote for Poroshenko, poll workers at School No. 10 said they were shorthanded because many of their colleagues were too scared to show up.
“You see there are only five out of 15 of us here,” said Olga Kvitka, who was checking a voter registration list. “These volunteers who showed up today, they are heroes. Real patriots. We are proud of them.”
Several streets down from the school, armed men calling themselves the Dnipro Battalion were guarding the city’s administration building, where all the city’s ballots will be collected and counted before being transferred to the regional commission. The men said they had arrived the night before and planned to stay until the ballots were safely delivered.
Residents of Krasnoarmeysk had mixed reactions to the presence of the armed group, one of the many paramilitary groups that describe themselves as defenders of a united Ukraine and are sponsored by Ihor Kolomoisky, an oligarch and Dnipropetrovsk’s Kiev-appointed governor.
The mining city of 80,000 lies in the central part of the volatile eastern Donetsk oblast. Krasnoarmeysk, along with others like Dobripolya and Velyka Novosilka, is now referred to as the green zone of the oblast because the armed rebels have so far not managed to permanently seize government buildings or control those areas.
Two weeks ago, another armed group also claiming to be from the Dnipro Battalion arrived in the city center on the day of the rebel-organized referendum on regional sovereignty. The group got into a heated argument with locals who said it was unwanted in the city. Shots were fired, and two men were killed. The group quickly left the city. To this day, no one knows who the armed men were, why they arrived or where they went.
“I think it’s good that these guys are here today,” said Viktor Tarasenko, 43, a sports club manager. “I hope they can keep us from turning into the next Slovyansk, Krammatorsk or some other hot spot.”
In those areas, battles between separatist rebels and the Ukrainian military and National Guard have resulted in heavy casualties on both sides. On Friday an Italian photographer and his Russian interpreter were killed at a block post outside Andriivka, north of Donetsk.
“We have no other choice but to vote,” Tarasenko said. “We really hope after this that there will be a more legitimate power in charge and one that can talk to the people.”