Billionaire declares win in Ukraine election




Los Angeles Times

KIEV, Ukraine (MCT) — Billionaire candy maker Petro Poroshenko appeared to win Ukraine's presidential election Sunday, with an exit poll showing 55.9 percent supporting the candidate, who campaigned on promises to align Ukraine with Europe while also easing strained relations with Russia.

The exit poll based on 17,000 interviews at polling places around the country showed Poroshenko far ahead of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was the choice of 12.9 percent of those interviewed by the Razumkov Center public opinion research firm. But with widespread disruption of voting in eastern Ukraine, it was unclear whether the exit poll was a reliable indicator of the national vote.

A separate poll by Ukrainian television stations gave Poroshenko 57 percent of the vote to Tymoshenko's 12 percent.

Poroshenko took a victory bow on television just minutes after the exit poll results were announced, pledging that his first acts as head of state would be focused on "ending the war, chaos and disorder" and restoring unity to the divided country.

Tymoshenko also appeared on TV to say she considered the election to have been fairly conducted and would accept the results when they are announced.

If Poroshenko does capture more than 50 percent of the vote when results are tabulated, probably Monday, he will avoid the need for a June 15 runoff with the second-place finisher. That outright win would allay fears that three more weeks of uncertainty could result in further violence. At least 130 people have been killed in recent weeks.

Pro-Russia gunmen who have seized government buildings in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions along Russia's border thwarted voting in at least two-thirds of the territory that is home to 6.5 million people, or about 15 percent of Ukraine's population. The separatists, accused by Kiev's interim government and its Western backers of being armed and encouraged by Russian President Vladimir Putin, had threatened election workers, kidnapped local advocates of Ukrainian unity and seized ballot boxes in the territory they insist is no longer part of Ukraine.

President Barack Obama, on a surprise visit to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, praised Ukrainian voters for their courage in casting ballots despite the separatists' threats and obstructions and said he looked forward to working with the next elected leader.

Obama said Ukrainians had shown their intention to choose a new leader "without interference," a reference to the Russian aggression denounced by U.S. and European leaders as an effort by Putin to dominate the former Soviet state.

Poroshenko would succeed Kremlin-allied former President Viktor Yanukovich, who fled Kiev in February after a rebellion that culminated in violent reprisals against demonstrators in which more than 100 people were killed. The chocolate magnate was seen by many voters as a more pragmatic choice than Tymoshenko, whose years in government and opposition were times of intense division and discord in the country.

"We expect he will make us a European country, and that is what most people want now," said 20-year-old Yulia Nosova after casting her ballot at a school in central Kiev near Independence Square, which was the epicenter of the rebellion and remains a memorial to those killed in the movement for fundamental change. Nosova, a hotel administration worker, described Poroshenko as "a diplomat who can work with everyone and put a new face on our country."

Some voters expressed concern that electing another oligarch would perpetuate Ukraine's strangling web of corruption, self-interest and political infighting.

"I support closer ties with Europe, as do the young people, but I worry that Poroshenko is a rich man who doesn't understand the common people," said Natalya Poprotskaya, a 63-year-old retired teacher who works at a museum to supplement her meager pension.

Some older voters said they cast their ballots for Poroshenko at the urging of their children.

"It's so terrifying what is happening now, people being killed by people who are their neighbors," said 80-year-old Nila Chekerda, whose four adult children encouraged her to back Poroshenko and his campaign promise of "living in a new way."

Poroshenko also seemed amenable to Russia, where Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have lately described him as someone with whom they can conduct business. Poroshenko, 48, has confectionary enterprises in Russia and enjoyed a lucrative trade relationship with the neighboring market until last year, when Moscow imposed import restrictions on his Roshen chocolates, claiming they contained impure ingredients. The import barriers were seen as Kremlin pressure against Kiev's plans to sign a trade and association deal with the European Union.

As he cast his ballot in Kiev, Poroshenko vowed to make disarmament of illegal militias his first order of business.

"I am convinced that this election must finally bring peace to Ukraine, stop lawlessness, stop chaos, stop bandit terror in the east," Poroshenko told a crowd of journalists recording the ballot cast by the man whom most expect to emerge as president. "People with weapons must be removed from Ukrainian streets."

Tymoshenko, who spent more than two years imprisoned during Yanukovich's time in office for alleged corruption, dispensed with her signature braided crown when she cast her ballot, sporting a bun and headband.

"It is time to hold a referendum on joining NATO to restore peace in Ukraine," Tymoshenko said after voting in her east-central home city of Dnepropetrovsk.

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