Ukrainians are voting in a presidential election the government is counting on to help unify the nation as deadly separatist violence dents turnout in its easternmost provinces.
Polling stations opened at 8 a.m. today across the nation of more than 40 million and close at 8 p.m., when exit polls are due. Chocolate magnate Petro Poroshenko leads his closest rival, ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, by 36 percentage points in the field of 21 candidates, polls showed. Turnout was 41.2 percent at 3 p.m., the Election Commission in Kiev said, though most polling stations in Donetsk and Luhansk remained shut.
The government wants today’s election to clearly distance the country from ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, the Russia-backed leader who fled for Moscow in February after deadly street protests in support of closer ties with Europe. President Vladimir Putin, who doesn’t recognize the government that replaced Yanukovych, has said Russia will work with the election’s winner. The U.S and its allies say they’ll tighten sanctions against Russia if voting is disrupted.
“The government wants this election to help boost its legitimacy,” Eurasia Group analyst Alex Brideau said by e-mail. “The Kremlin will be cautious about how it responds -- it has been more conciliatory in its rhetoric over the past week -- and some outreach to the new president is likely.”
Poroshenko has 44.6 percent backing versus 8.4 percent for Tymoshenko in a May 14-18 poll by the Razumkov Center and Democratic Initiatives Foundation in Kiev. Should Poroshenko’s share of the vote not exceed 50 percent, he’d face a runoff that he’d win with 52 percent support, the survey of 2,011 voters showed. It had a margin of error of 2.3 percentage points.
“We need to pick a legitimate president because we don’t have one now,” said Ivan Hrynko, a 27-year-old doctor at a Kiev polling station who wore a yellow and blue Ukrainian flag T-shirt and had a small flag painted on his cheek. “There’s hope he’ll be able to resolve the situation in the east.”
The ex-Soviet republic is holding the vote amid separatist violence that erupted after Putin annexed the Black Sea Crimean peninsula in March. Ukraine says the turmoil is orchestrated by Russia, which denies the accusation. Putin last week ordered a troop pullback from his neighbor’s border after weeks of drills that stoked tensions and irked the U.S. and the European Union. The withdrawal has begun, the border service said today.
Clashes continued yesterday in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where Pro-Russian gunmen want to prevent the vote from going ahead. One serviceman was killed near the city of Slovyansk, according to the Interior Ministry. An Italian journalist died nearby, the Foreign Ministry in Rome said today.
With security a major concern, no polling booths in the city of Donetsk have opened, while 528 out of 2,432 were working in the surrounding region as of 3 p.m., the local administration said on its website. In the Luhansk region, people can vote at as many as 400 of the 1,476 polling stations, Oleksiy Svetikov, head of local branch of Ukraine’s Committee of Voters, a non-governmental organization, said by phone.
“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.
“Those elections are being disrupted for many Ukrainians” in the east, U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican observing the vote in Kiev, said today on Fox News. “Putin is the one who can dial this up or dial this down.”
Poroshenko says he’s the man to unite the country and lead it out of the current unrest. The tycoon, 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 free-trade pact.
“I know how to create new jobs,” Poroshenko, 48, said on a talk show broadcast by private TV channel ICTV on April 22.
He’ll face a shrinking economy dependent on a $17 billion International Monetary Fund bailout signed this month to shore up its finances. Gross domestic product will fall 7 percent in 2014, the most since 2009, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development predicts. The hryvnia is this year’s worst-performing currency, plunging 31 percent against the dollar.
With all the difficulties facing Ukraine, a speedy resolution to the elections in necessary, according to Bank of America Corp. analysts Vadim Khramov and Vladimir Osakovskiy.
“An effective and legitimate president in Ukraine is needed to deal with the unfolding crisis, which could worsen,” they said May 23 in a research note. “If elections are pushed to a second round, then there’d be another three weeks of uncertainty related to bargaining and negotiations.”
Should Poroshenko fail to meet the 50 percent threshold, the runoff will take place June 15. The election will be deemed valid regardless of the violence in the east and its effect on turnout, the Electoral Commission has said.
“It’s not easy to prepare and conduct elections when huge financial, political, and military resources are used to disrupt them,” Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said yesterday in a televised address. “It will be an expression of will of Ukrainians from the west, east, north and south. The choice will be fair and free.”