Ukrainians are widely expected to give a resounding endorsement to the overthrow of their last elected leader by voting on Sunday for presidential candidates promising close ties with the West, in defiance of Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
But the absence of more than 15 percent of the electorate, in Russian-annexed Crimea and two eastern regions where fighting with pro-Moscow rebels continued on Saturday, may mar any result – and leave the Kremlin questioning the victor’s legitimacy, for all of a pledge by Putin to respect the people’s will.
European election monitors largely pulled out of Donetsk region for their own safety, citing a campaign of “terror” by pro-Russian separatists against Ukrainian electoral officials.
Polls make a billionaire confectionery magnate known as the “chocolate king” an overwhelming favourite in a vote expected to show a high turnout on a warm, sunny day.
For many the biggest question is whether Petro Poroshenko, who has been a minister in the past, can take more than 50 percent to win outright in one round.
Poroshenko, 48, was a strong backer of the protests against Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovich last winter and has sought a quick victory by warning that new unrest might prevent a second voting round.
His closest, if distant, rival is former prime minister and wealthy former businesswoman Yulia Tymoshenko, who is 53 years old. She seems best placed to contest a runoff in three weeks but remains a divisive figure to many: more closely associated than Poroshenko with the economic failures and rampant corruption that have marred Ukraine’s 23 years of independence from Soviet rule.
Officials say many polling stations in Ukraine’s Russian speaking regions will not open for fear of attack and only early on Sunday will they try to distribute ballot papers to those areas where voting may be possible.
Voting will start at 8 am (0500 GMT) and end 12 hours later. Exit polls at 8 pm (1700 GMT) will indicate the result and an official outcome is due before international monitors deliver their verdict on the process on Monday afternoon.
PUTIN TO “RESPECT” RESULT
Western states backed those who took power when Yanukovich fled to Russia three months ago after street protests triggered by his rejection of a free trade agreement with the EU.
They hope that an electoral mandate for a new leader can help resolve a confrontation with Russia that has sparked military buildups east and west of Ukraine and raised fears of a new Cold War.
Putin pledged on Saturday to “respect” the people’s choice and work with Ukraine’s new administration – a conciliatory promise made during an economic forum at which he acknowledged US and EU sanctions over Ukraine are hurting the Russian economy.
But he defended his annexation of Crimea in March as a response to the democratic will of the majority ethnic Russian population there.
Kiev and its Western allies accuse Moscow of a propaganda war to sow fear among Russian speakers in eastern and southern continued…