Ukrainians filed into polling stations on a clear, chilly morning Sunday to elect a new parliament, while the nation's leader, whose pro-Western party is projected to win a majority of seats in the contest, visited soldiers in the restive east, where voting in some areas was difficult or altogether stifled.
Sunday was the second time that Ukrainians have plunged paper at the polls since a wave protests swept former Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovych from power in February.
The first round of voting brought the soft-spoken, self-made confectionary tycoon Petro Poroshenko to power in a landslide, while Sunday's parliamentary elections are expected to secure the so-called Chocolate King's authority over the state, allowing him to enact the widespread reforms needed to woo the European Union into formally offering Ukraine a seat at the table.
Early polls, conducted days before booths opened across the country, predicted Poroshenko's pro-European bloc had amassed enough support to win an expected 30 percent of the ballot, with more undecided voters (32 percent) potentially falling to his moderate bloc.
If Poroshenko fails to win an outright majority in individual constituencies, it is likely he will join forces with other pro-Western parties to form a coalition that supports his stances on a united Ukraine and European integration.
Among them, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk's Popular Front Party and the Fatherland Party of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko are expected to secure positions in parliament. Polls also suggest that the pro-war Radical Party, led by the alleged neo-nazi Oleh Lyashko, which has been gaining increasing notoriety of late, will also surpass the required five percent vote to enter parliament to gain one or more places in the 450-seat assembly.
President Petro Poroshenko marked the day by paying a visit to troops in the area.
Yet a win for the pro-Western coalition is unlikely to bring about the promises of transformation — and possibly peace — that authorities said would arrive with the upending of the parliament, the last institution left over from Yanukovych's unstable rein and Ukraine's Soviet past.
The country is still as divided as ever. In the Donbas region to the country's east and south, which is heavily populated by ethnic Russians, residents awake almost daily to heavy artillery and shelling that persists until nightfall, despite a tenuous ceasefire between the Ukraine army and rebels clinging to ambitions to form a Novorossia, or New Russia, under their control. More than 3,000 people have died in the conflict.
The pro-Moscow rebels are aiming to hold separate parliamentary elections on November 2 to seat the region's own prime minister and lawmaking body. Poroshenko signed a controversial law last month granting amnesty for separatists and special self-rule status for the region.
In the restless industrial city of Donetsk, the insurgent leader and self-proclaimed prime minister of the Donetsk People's Republic (DNR), Alexander Zakharchenko, is among those who have announced his candidacy for the elections. Campaign posters plastered around the city are emblazoned with the group's double-headed eagle flag feature a portrait of a steely-looking Zakharchenko in fatigues.
Kiev says holding separate elections in the region would be illegal, while the Kremlin continues to support the region's gradual moves toward autonomy. Militants in Donetsk and Luhansk moved onto Moscow time Sunday, following in the footsteps of the Crimean peninsula, which switched time zones in March after its annexation by Russia, according to local media. Residents in both regions are now an hour ahead of Kiev and on the same dinner schedule as most of European Russia.
Spurts of violence and constant mortar fire forced a number of Ukrainian parliamentary candidates vying for seats in contested territory to campaign from the outskirts of the region, while residents of some borderlands under full or partial rebel control, including 2.8 million people in Donetsk and Luhansk, had to forgo voting altogether. Crimea will also sit out of these and future Ukrainian elections, meaning only only 423 seats of parliament's 450 assembly will be filled.
"There was shelling all yesterday as we were preparing the voter lists," Nadezhda Danilchenko, an election committee staffer in government-controlled Volnovakha, a town located roughly 30 miles from Donetsk told Reuters.
"Either they (the separatists) are practicing their shooting or they're trying to intimidate us."
Ballot boxes on the fringes of the front line, mere miles away from fighting, have opened, although people are still too afraid to vote, according to VICE News reporters on the ground in eastern Ukraine.
In parts of the Donetsk region under Ukrainian control, the military was out guarding some polling stations and electoral commissions. Ilya Kiva, commander of the Poltavshina Battalion who was in Volnovakha, said his men were in place to secure the ballot count. "The separatists are just 30 kilometers from here and we need to make sure that they don't interfere with the vote," he said.
Kiva said his men would transport ballot paperwork from polling stations to the electoral commission of the district in armored personnel carriers and guard the commission building until voting data was transmitted electronically to Kiev over night.
Dmitry Lubinets, a candidate running in President Petro Poroshenko's bloc in the south of the Donetsk region, was surrounded by armed guards from one of the Ukrainian volunteer battalions. "During the presidential elections there were thugs going from polling station to polling station intimidating voters so this time around we're taking precautions," he said.
In disputed territory between Donetsk and Mariupol, voting took place in roughly 70 of 110 districts, with election stations receiving bolstered security in the form of Ukrainian army and police personnel to protect staff, voters, and ballot boxes. Voter turnout has been low in these areas to the east, but VICE News reports no major security issues so far Sunday.
A few singular incidents marred an otherwise non-violent day of voting, including a rock-throwing incident aimed at a car carrying Poroshenko Bloc candidates Sergiy Leshchenko, Mustafa Nayem, and Svitlana Zalishchuk near Znamyanka in Kirovograd Oblast. A car was also shot at outside a polling booth in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, and bomb threats shut down seven voting stations in Mykolayiv, southern Ukraine.
VICE News' Simon Ostrovsky contributed to reporting.
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