KIEV – The people of Ukraine on Sunday elected the billionaire and pro-western politician Petro Poroshenko as the country's fifth president since it gained independence in 1991.
Poroshenko won between 56 and 58 percent of the vote, according to exit-polls, easily passing the 50 percent threshold. Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko came in second, with about 13 percent of the vote, and journalist and Radical Party leader Oleg Lyashko was expected to take third spot.
Leaders of the ultra-nationalist parties Svoboda and Pravy Sektor are not expected to be in the top five spots when the final vote tally is in.
The turnout was expected to reach 60 percent, a significant achievement considering the fact that nearly 20 percent of voters live in areas annexed by Russia or controlled to a certain degree by pro-Russian separatists who tried to disrupt the elections.
The new president will form a permanent government, replacing the temporary one that took power in Kiev following the revolution three months ago. He has a daunting list of tasks ahead of him: stabilizing the weak economy, signing agreements with the European Union, while trying to pacify Russia, and regaining control of the eastern region, where separatists have announced their independence.
After voting in Kiev on Sunday, Poroshenko said that the first thing he would do after election was "to open direct dialogue with people of Donbass." He also vowed to combat corruption "whether it exists among rivals or allies."
While long queues formed at the polling stations in the west and center of Ukraine, separatist violence prevented elections from taking place in some of the eastern regions. More than 35 million citizens were eligible to vote, though nearly 20 percent of them live in Crimea, which was annexed by Russia two months ago, and the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where separatists are active.
There was no voting at all in Crimea and at least 10 percent of the polling stations in Donetsk and Luhansk did not even open. The very fact that a limited election took place in eastern Ukraine, despite the separatists' threats, will help the new government claim legitimacy.
In other eastern regions, such as Dnepropetrovsk where Jewish oligarch Igor Kolomoisky has been appointed temporary governor, the elections proceeded in an orderly fashion.
There were violent confrontations on election day between separatists and security forces. One man was killed near a polling stations in Lugansk, when cars which were carrying ballot papers were shot at. In Donetsk, 2,000 pro-Russian gunmen tried to storm the house of Ukraine's richest person, Rinat Ahmetov, who has recently opposed the separatists and supported Kiev.
The separatists, who claim that Donetsk and Lugansk are no longer part of Ukraine, declared the new state of Novorossiya on Saturday. Ballot boxes were destroyed and defaced in places under their control.
In Kiev, on the other hand, Sunday morning was festive and many citizens arrived to vote in embroidered Ukrainian shirts or their finest clothes. It was the hottest day of the year, so far, with temperatures reaching 30 degrees Centigrade. Hundreds of people waited to vote – sometime for over two hours – in public buildings without air-conditioning.
At School no. 228 in the Brezinki neighborhood of eastern Kiev, many voters complained that additional ballots had not been prepared. The long wait did not dent their exuberance, however.
Stanislav Blokhin a seaman who participated in the pro-democracy protests earlier this year, arrived in an embroidered shirt and said, "I feel that today we have an opportunity as a country, not only for the next five years, but for 10 or 20. In February 2014, we started to build a new nation and now it's up to us. We won't allow corrupt leaders to take our money again."
His girlfriend, Yelena Yermulenko, who arrived wearing the colors of the national flag, a yellow dress and blue toe-nail varnish, said that, "if after the election the same people come back to rob us, we are prepared and we will topple them again."
Not all the locals shared the excitement. Vladimir Stakhovich, a driver bringing voters to the school, said he wasn't planning to vote. "There are 21 candidates, all corrupt people we already know. I don't feel there's a difference – and, anyway, our future will be decided after the elections by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin."
At another polling station, School no. 117 in the upscale Pichersk neighborhood in central Kiev, the atmosphere was more businesslike. Here a larger proportion of the residents were connected to the old government and have what to lose from the changes.
Nikola Bezerkin, a film editor, said that "also here people are seeking change. We may not want to be part of the European Union – I don't – but we live today in a world without walls or barriers, we see how people live in other places and we know that information cannot be blocked. We won't go back to the era of [former president Viktor] Yanukovych."
Bezerkin said he wasn't voting for Poroshenko, since "he has already been in parliament for long time and switched so many parties. You can't trust him." His mother Valentina said that "many more people are voting today than in previous elections. We feel for the first time that we are assuming responsibility for our future."
Not everyone in Kiev flocked to vote. On the outskirts of Maidan Square, where massive and sometimes violent demonstrations brought down Yanukovych three months ago, a group of students dressed as cartoon characters played and took photographs with passersby.
"We are on a mission to make people happy," said Helena Wigovska, an accountancy student wearing a Bugs Bunny outfit. "Right now, things are very sad here."
They also tried to collect money for their tuition. "We haven't voted yet," she said. "Maybe we'll go in the evening." Her friend Anna Avramuk, dressed as a squirrel, said that she hadn't decided for whom to vote but wouldn't be voting for Poroshenko, whose assets are assessed by Forbes magazine at around $1.3 billion.
"I don't think the president should have so many houses when so many people here can barely afford to rent a little apartment," she said. "It's a pity there aren't more candidates with less money."
The elections were held under heavy security, provided by the military, police and even private security contractors. In addition to the fear of separatist violence, there was deep concern over attempts to sabotage the election's computer system. Last week, a computer virus succeeded in infiltrating the system and deleting entire databases.
The election commission said that the information had been restored from backup files and was working once again, though the commission's website was down for many hours during election day.
Ukraine's security service announced that it had arrested a group of computer hackers planning to rig the election results. The government is not only worried that cyber-sabotage could affect the vote-counting; it is also concerned that any claims by hackers to have succeeded in accessing the system could be used to delegitimize the entire election process, including the government that will be formed based on its results.
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