Ukrainians began voting Sunday in a presidential election marred by violence and all but cancelled in eastern cities, where pro-Russian separatists have shut polling places and threatened election officials.
The election is being called the most important for Ukraine since the nation won independence from Moscow 23 years ago, Reuters reported.
Eighteen candidates are on the ballot, with chocolate magnate Petro Poroshenko as the overwhelming favorite. If he fails to win 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held June 15.
His closest — but still distant — competitor is Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister who has been linked to allegations of corruption, the Globe and Mail and other news outlets report.
The vote comes three months after the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Russia president, Viktor Yanukovych, who was driven from the country after rejecting closer ties with Europe.
No reports of violence have come from the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk early Sunday, but “pro-Russia insurgents were trying to block voting by snatching ballot boxes and patrolling polling stations,” the Associated Press said.
That peace could be disturbed later in the day, when separatists plan a large demonstration outside Donetsk city hall, the building they have occupied along with other government buildings, reports NPR’s Corey Flintoff for our Newscast desk.
Pro-Ukraine miners are planning a demonstration, possibly in the same location, raising the possibility of clashes, he said.
All polling places in Donetsk city are closed, according to Flintoff. Election observers from the Committee for Open Democracy were planning to go to the port city of Mariupol, in the Donetsk region, where security was expected to be good, he says.
“That has all changed now,” says Flintoff. One of the chief election observers reports that “his team is at the airport because they’ve been ordered to withdraw for security purposes,” he says.
He says teams of armed separatists are roaming the streets in Donetsk.
At this point, the situation here is very uncertain and insecure,” Flintoff reports. “We don’t think there is going to be any voting, and there is in fact the possility of violence.”
The absence of votes in the east could be grounds for Russian President Vladimir Putin to question the results, even though he pledged last week to respect the people’s will.
Voting began at 8 a.m. (1 a.m. EDT) and will end 12 hours later, with official results expected Monday.