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Last updated: May 26, 2014 9:25 am

Poroshenko claims victory in crucial Ukraine election

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Ukrainian presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko speaks during press conference in Kiev, Ukraine, 26 May 2014.©EPA

Billionaire oligarch Petro Poroshenko won a first-round victory on Sunday night in crucial presidential elections in Ukraine that were marred by several million voters in the east being prevented from taking part by a spreading separatist insurgency.

With 50.26 per cent of the votes counted, support for Mr Poroshenko a confectionery magnate nicknamed the “Chocolate King”, stood at 53.86 per cent, well ahead of the 50 per cent threshold needed to avoid a second-round run-off. Yulia Tymoshenko, the former premier and joint leader of the 2004 Orange revolution had 13.1 per cent.

The fact that large parts of the easternmost Donetsk and Lugansk regions were unable to vote – with no polling stations opening at all in Donetsk, the largest city in Ukraine’s industrial south-eastern heartland, may have boosted the pro-western tycoon’s victory margin.

But it will rob Mr Poroshenko of the genuinely nationwide mandate he had sought to bring to the task of reuniting Ukraine, and defusing tensions with neighbouring Russia, after months of turmoil surrounding the ousting of president Viktor Yanukovich in February.

It may also hand a pretext to Russian president Vladimir Putin not to recognise the vote, even after edging towards recognising the vote in recent days.

There was no immediate reaction to the poll from the Kremlin. But US president Barack Obama congratulated Ukrainians on the election, welcoming it as an “important step forward in the efforts of the Ukrainian government to unify the country”.

Highlighting the deterioration of law and order in the east, masked rebel gunmen also took up positions on Sunday outside the luxury Donetsk residence of Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man. Separatist leaders said they planned to arrest the most powerful man in Ukraine’s east for failing to pay taxes to their self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic.

Donetsk airport was closed on Monday and all flights in and out of the city cancelled after armed separatists tried to take control of it.

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If Mr Poroshenko’s first-round victory is confirmed, the election brings to power a man who publicly backed February’s protests in Kiev against former president Viktor Yanukovich but, as a businessman who has also served as a government minister, is a symbol of the very cronyistic system the demonstrations aimed to overthrow.

The fluent English-speaking tycoon is seen as a pragmatic figure, however, whose pro-European stance is balanced by business links with Russia. That may help his ability to build bridges both across the divide between the country’s Ukrainian-speaking west and Russian-speaking east, and with Moscow.

But his task will be complicated by the lack of a mandate from eastern regions together comprising 6.6m people, where armed pro-Russian rebels who seized government buildings in several cities last month disrupted the election to a greater degree than expected.

Asked while voting if his first trip as president would be to the EU or Russia, Mr Poroshenko responded “to Donbass”, the name given to Ukraine’s heavy industrial south-eastern region.

Vadim Karasiov, a political analyst, said: “The card played by Russia will be in pointing out that the presidential election did not, de facto, take place in Donbass, [so] the newly elected president does not represent this region.”

Turnout appeared high in west and central Ukraine. But the central election commission said voting was taking place in only two of 12 districts in the Lugansk region, and seven out of 22 in the Donetsk region.

Electoral officials in Donetsk said separatists had seized ballot boxes and papers, and some staff had been intimidated by rebels into not opening the polls.

Voting did take place in some towns in the Donetsk region not controlled by rebels, but even there turnout was low, with many voters either uninterested or afraid to take part.

In Donetsk city, there was little sign of voters clamouring to cast ballots. Three factory workers drinking beer outside a school normally used as a polling station said they would not have voted for any of the 20 candidates.

“We want someone from Donbass,” said one.

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If confirmed, Mr Poroshenko’s victory in the first round of voting would be the first in a Ukrainian presidential election since 1991, when Leonid Kravchuk became the country’s first popularly-elected president.

One of the biggest surprises of the poll, however, was that third place went to Oleh Lyashko, leader of the Radical party and a populist maverick who appeared to have picked up a protest vote, winning about 9 per cent.

But despite Russia’s claims that “fascists” and “neo-Nazis” have seized power in Kiev, Oleh Tiahnybok, leader of the Svoboda or Freedom party, polled only 1.3 per cent. That was far below the 10.4 per cent his party won in 2012 parliamentary elections, even though Mr Tiahnybok was a leader of the anti-Yanukovich demonstrations.

Dmytro Yarosh, head of Right Sector, the far-right paramilitary group that is a particular bogeyman of Russian media and officials, polled 1.1 per cent, according to exit polls.

The heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, another leader of the anti-Yanukovich protests who dropped out of the presidential race in favour of Mr Poroshenko, was set to be elected mayor of Kiev, with exit polls giving him 57 per cent in the mayoral ballot.

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