KIEV, Ukraine — Exit polls suggested candy tycoon Petro Poroshenko was elected president Sunday in the first round of balloting in the bitterly divided country, and he vowed “to bring peace to the Ukrainian land.”
The billionaire who supports strong ties with Europe but also wants to mend relations with Russia claimed victory after a vote that took place amid weeks of fighting in eastern Ukraine where pro-Moscow separatists have seized government buildings and battled government troops.
The rebels had vowed to block the ballot in the east, and less than 20 percent of the polling stations were open there after gunmen intimidated locals by smashing ballot boxes, shutting down polling centers and issuing threats.
But nationwide, about 60 percent of 35.5 million eligible voters turned out, the central elections commission said, and long lines snaked around polling stations in the capital of Kiev.
The exit polls, conducted by three respected Ukrainian survey agencies, found the 48-year-old Poroshenko getting 55.9 percent of the vote in the field of 21 candidates. A distant second was former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko with 12.9 percent. Full results are expected Monday, but if that margin holds, Poroshenko would avoid a runoff election next month.
Poroshenko said his first steps as president would be to visit the Donbass eastern industrial region, home to Ukraine’s coal mines – and “put an end to war, chaos, crime, and bring peace to the Ukrainian land.”
He also promised a dialogue with residents of eastern Ukraine and said he was ready to extend amnesty to those who did not commit any crimes.
“For those people who don’t take (up) weapons, we are always ready for negotiations to guarantee them security, to guarantee them defending of their rights, including speaking the language they want,” he said in English.
The election, which came three months after pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych was chased from office, was seen as a critical step toward resolving Ukraine’s protracted crisis.
Since his ouster, Russia has annexed the Crimea in southern Ukraine, the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk have declared their independence from Kiev, and the interim Ukrainian government has launched an offensive in the east to quash an uprising that has left dozens dead.
Poroshenko ducked the question whether he was prepared to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin but said Kiev would like to negotiate a new security treaty with Moscow.
Putin has promised to “respect the choice of the Ukrainian people.”
Unlike other Ukrainian billionaires, Poroshenko did not make his fortune in murky post-Soviet privatizations but instead built his chocolate empire brick by brick. His Willy Wonka-like stores help lead to the perception that he is the “good tycoon.”
Poroshenko backs closer ties with the 28-nation EU, but also speaks about the need to normalize ties with Russia.