Billionaire chocolate tycoon Petro Poroshenko has won Ukraine’s presidential election outright in the first round, according to an exit poll.
The poll for Sunday’s election, conducted by three respected Ukrainian survey agencies, found the tycoon won 55.9% of the vote.
In a distant second was former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko with 12.9%.
Full results are expected to be announced tomorrow in the election that could be a critical step toward resolving Ukraine’s crisis.
Today's ballot took place despite weeks of fighting in the sprawling eastern regions that form Ukraine's industrial heartland, where pro-Russia separatist have seized government buildings and battled government troops. The rebels had vowed to block the ballot in the east - and less than 20% of the polling stations were open there.
The exit poll, conducted by three respected Ukrainian survey agencies, found 48-year-old Poroshenko had 55.9% of the vote.
Tymoshenko had secured 12.9%, the poll showed. Full results are expected to be announced tomorrow.
The poll, which surveyed 17,000 voters at 400 precincts, claimed a margin of error of 2 percentage points, indicating Poroshenko clearly passed the 50% mark needed to win without a runoff.
The election came three months after the country’s pro-Russia leader fled in February, chased from power by months of protests over corruption and his decision to reject a pact with the European Union and forge closer ties with Moscow, and two months after Russia annexed Crimea.
Some 35.5 million Ukrainians were eligible to vote, but separatists in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions – which have 5.1 million voters – said they would not hold the vote because they were no longer part of Ukraine.
Little voting was taking place in the east. The regional administration in Donetsk said only 426 of 2,430 polling stations in the region were open and none in the city of Donetsk, which has 1 million people. There was no voting in the city of Luhansk either, but some stations were open in the wider Luhansk region.
Sergei Melnichuk, a Ukrainian army battalion commander stationed in Novoaidar, said about 50 armed pro-Russia rebels attacked a polling station trying to seize ballots already cast. He said they were thwarted and 13 were captured.
The Interfax-Ukraine news agency quoted deputy interior minister as saying one person was killed and another injured in the fighting.
Poroshenko decried the deadly clashes in his country after casting his ballot in Kiev, where many people wore traditional embroidered shirts in a sign of Ukrainian patriotism.
“I am convinced that this election must finally bring peace to Ukraine, stop lawlessness, stop chaos, stop bandit terror in the east,” Poroshenko said. “People with weapons must be removed from Ukrainian streets, Ukrainian villages and cities.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised to “respect the choice of the Ukrainian people” and said he would work with the winner, in an apparent bid to ease Russia’s worst crisis with the West since the Cold War and avoid a new round of Western sanctions.
The interim Kiev government and the West have accused Russia of backing the separatist uprising. Moscow has denied the accusations but annexed Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea after a separatist vote there.
US President Barack Obama praised the people of Ukraine for participating in presidential voting “despite provocations and violence”.
He singled out those “courageous Ukrainians” who cast ballots in parts of eastern Ukraine where Russian-backed separatists tried to block voting.
Mr Obama said the US is eager to work with Ukraine’s next president and a democratically elected parliament, and to support the country’s efforts Mr to enact political and economic reforms.
He said Ukrainians have shown over the past few months a desire to pick their leaders “without interference” and determine their future “free of violence and intimidation.”
He said the US supports Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and rejects Russia’s “occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea”.