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Pro-Europe billionaire Petro Poroshenko claims victory in Ukraine presidential vote

Canberra Times logo Canberra Times 25/05/2014 Paul McGeough
Ukrainian businessman, politician and presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko. © Ukraine Ukrainian businessman, politician and presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko.

Donetsk, eastern Ukraine: Acting on a commanding lead in two exit polls, the Ukrainian billionaire Petro Poroshenko – a.k.a. The Chocolate King – declared victory in a presidential election that many Ukrainians hope can be a turning point for a crisis-ridden, near-bankrupt nation teetering on the brink of civil war that pits Russia against the US and the European Union.

The 48-year-old Mr Poroshenko emerged from what was to be a first round of voting for 21 candidates with well over 50 per cent of the vote.

If that lead holds in the formal count of votes, which is expected to conclude on Monday, he will be declared president without a run-off ballot, which likely would have force him into a contest with the ambitious former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Ms Tymoshenko who, according to the exit polls, barely managed to win double-digit support.

One of the exit polls put support for Mr Poroshenko, one of the country's incredibly rich oligarch businessmen, at 55.9 per cent. Another had him at 57.3 per cent. By contrast, Ms Tymoshenko languished way behind – shy of 13 per cent in one of the polls.

"All the polls show that the election has been completed in one round and the country has a new president," Mr Poroshenko, 48, told a news conference at his Kiev campaign headquarters, during which he vowed to take Ukraine deeper into Europe – not into a Russian orbit.

He also undertook to travel to the separatist enclaves on the Russian border to end six months of "war and chaos" caused by a noisy and well-armed pro-Russian separatist movement which has declared the Donetsk and Luhansk districts to be independent and has its eyes on an even greater swathe of territory which it has dubbed New Russia.

"I am convinced that this election must finally bring peace to Ukraine, stop lawlessness, stop chaos, stop bandit terror in the east," Mr Poroshenko told supporters as he cast his vote earlier. "People with weapons must be removed from Ukrainian streets, Ukrainian villages and cities."

Addressing the shadow of Russian interest – President Vladimir Putin has already annexed the Crimean Peninsula and has supported the separatists – Mr Poroshenko insisted on respect for Ukraine's "sovereignty and territorial integrity" and refused to accept that Kiev had lost Crimea, where a hastily-arranged referendum under the shadow of Russian guns saw voters opt for secession in March.

In Kiev and the pro-European west of the country, there were long voter lines as more than 35 million votes were cast. But here in the east there was sporadic violence, with one man reported killed in Luhansk.

Separatist militia leaders seemed to back away from their explicit threats to disrupt Sunday's vote with violence. Instead their threats were enough to shut down most of the electoral machine which meant that as many as five million votes were not case in the east.

Despite a security operation involving more than 82,000 police and 17,500 militia volunteers, an electoral official in Donetsk told reporters that only 426 of 2430 planned polling stations in the region opened Sunday, none of them in the cities of Donetsk or Luhansk.

Instead of attacking polling stations the separatists massed hundreds of their uniformed fighters for staged a guns-blazing military parade through the centre of Donetsk city.

The threat of civil war all but robbed the campaign of any meaningful debate on the future for a country that has twice failed to step away from its corrupt Soviet past – once on the collapse of the Soviet Union and again when its 2004 Orange Revolution faltered.

The protest camps in the heart of Kiev remain as a warning to Mr Poroshenko of loud demands for genuine democratic reform and how Ms Tymoshenko responds to her defeat will have a bearing on how he might proceed.

These two have proved unable to get on politically in the past and despite her defeat in the presidential ballot, Ms Tymoshenko is expected to seek the office of prime minister in as-yet unscheduled parliamentary elections that likely will see off a good number of the MPs who have helped to reduce the country to the mess that it is these days.

Also complicating matters for Mr Poroshenko is the overwrought emotions on both sides of the country's political divide – as he fled the country in February, ousted president Viktor Yanukovych presided over a security operation in which more than 70 of the Kiev protesters were gunned down and the more recent separatist clashes have claimed as many as 150 lives.

Seen as an urbane pragmatist who can work with Moscow and Brussels, Mr Poroshenko needs to act fast to win support on three fronts – with democracy-minded activists who see him as a patsy for the oligarchs, with the pro-Europe west of the country and the pro-Russian east.

At the same time he has to develop a working relationship with Mr Putin's Russia which sells Ukraine much of its energy needs and is a crucial export market for Kiev; and with the Western capitals that have been underwriting Kiev's depleted coffers and tightening a sanctions regime on Russia to make it back off from its intrusion into Ukraine.

As the next stage plays out Germany is vital – and in Berlin they are holding their breadth. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier took an each-way bet in responding to the election outcome, telling reporters: "Whether Poroshenko manages to unite a divided country will depend above all on how the constitutional process will now be approached, what kind of messages will be sent to the eastern region . . . also to the Russian-speakers."

The West has had difficulty discerning Mr Putin's long-term goals.

After snatching Crimea he initially voiced strong support for the Russian-speaking separatists in the west of the country, but more recently he has sounded more conciliatory, first calling on the separatists to delay a secession referendum they held on May 11 and more recently acknowledging the legitimacy of the winner of Sunday's poll and - after several false starts - seeming to pull his troops back from Russia's border with Ukraine.

Separatist fighters fire their weapons in honour of their fallen comrades as they parade down the street near Lenin Square in Donetsk on the day of the Ukrainian Presidential elections.

Separatist fighters fire their weapons in honour of their fallen comrades as they parade down the street near Lenin Square in Donetsk on the day of the Ukrainian Presidential elections.
© Kate Geraghty

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