Ukrainians elected billionaire Petro Poroshenko as president, two exit polls showed, handing him the task of stemming deadly separatist violence that’s threatening to rip the former Soviet republic apart.
Poroshenko garnered more than half of the vote, avoiding a runoff with as much as 57.3 percent support, according to the surveys. Ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko came second out of 21 candidates with 12-13 percent backing, the polls showed. While most in Ukraine’s easternmost regions didn’t vote, Poroshenko’s success was welcomed in the U.S. and Europe.
“The first-round victory shortens the period of uncertainty and stabilizes the system of governance,” Yuriy Yakymenko, head of political research at the Razumkov Center, said by phone from Kiev. “Ukraine gets a legitimate president and the tools to influence the situation in the east.”
The government wants the vote to draw a line under the rule of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, the Russian-backed leader who fled for Moscow in February after deadly street protests in support of closer European ties. President Vladimir Putin, who doesn’t recognize the government in Kiev, has said Russia will work with the election’s winner. The U.S and its allies said they’d tighten sanctions against Russia if voting was disrupted.
Poroshenko, who has a fortune of $1 billion according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, has flaunted his business acumen and promised to boost wages by nurturing employment and gearing the economy toward Europe through a trade pact.
The tycoon is known for his ability to work with different camps. He was foreign minister under President Viktor Yushchenko, the hero of the 2004 Orange Revolution that helped overturn Yanukovych’s election win, and as economy minister under Yanukovych, who in February was ousted in deadly protests sparked by his snub of a European integration accord.
Poroshenko says he’s the man to lead Ukraine from crisis.
“Our first step will focus on ending the war, chaos and disorder,” he told reporters at his campaign headquarters in Kiev, pledging to visit the troubled eastern regions and to work with Russia to resolve the conflict. He also pledged to call early parliamentary elections in the autumn.
Ivan Hrynko, a 27-year-old doctor, said at a Kiev polling station that the he voted for Poroshenko because the tycoon has the people’s support and “will be able to reinstall order.”
“There’s hope he’ll be able to resolve the situation in the east,” said Hrynko, who wore a yellow and blue Ukrainian flag T-shirt and had a small flag painted on his cheek.
Poroshenko’s victory is “strongly” positive for bond markets in Ukraine and Russia, Vladimir Miklashevsky, a Helsinki-based strategist at Danske Bank, said by phone. The hryvnia is this year’s worst-performing currency, having plunged 31 percent against the dollar, data compiled by Bloomberg show.
U.S. President Barack Obama said the election is another “important” step forward in Ukraine’s efforts to unify the country and ensure all citizens’ concerns are addressed.
“The U.S. 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,” he said in an e-mailed statement.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke of a “very important day,” telling ARD television that the poll results are “a clear signal also to the separatists that the great majority of people in Ukraine want unity, freedom and democracy -- and not the splitting up of Ukraine.”
There was no immediate reaction from Russia.
Ukraine held the vote amid separatist violence that erupted after Russia annexed the Black Sea Crimean peninsula in March. It says the turmoil is orchestrated by the government in Moscow, which denies the accusation. Putin last week ordered a troop pullback from his neighbor’s border after weeks of drills that stoked tensions.
Clashes continued today in the Luhansk region, where pro-Russian gunmen sought to stop the vote. One person was killed in the town of Novoaydar, according to the Interior Ministry. An Italian journalist died yesterday amid fighting in the Donetsk city of Slovyansk, the Foreign Ministry in Rome said.
With security a major concern, less than a third of polling booths in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions opened today, the local administrations said on their websites. Polling stations remained closed in the two regional capitals.
“I hoped until the last moment that we’d get to vote,” said Tatiana Kostenko, a teacher at the Donetsk national technical university who planned to vote for Poroshenko. “The authorities could have done more to secure the elections.”
The largely Russian-speaking Donetsk and Luhansk regions are home to 5.1 million voters, a seventh of Ukraine’s electorate, according to Central Electoral Commission data. Separatists there have abducted voting officials and issued death threats, according to the Commission.
“It’s not ideal, but the people of Ukraine have done everything in their power to express their will,” U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican observing the vote in Kiev, said by phone. “I think that this presidential election should be accepted.”
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