KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — 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, the poll showed. Full results are expected Monday, but if that margin holds, Poroshenko would avoid a runoff election next month with the second-place finisher.
Viewing the exit polls as definitive evidence of victory, 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 by crowds following months of street protests and allegations of corruption, 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" 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.
President Barack Obama praised Ukrainians for participating in the voting "despite provocations and violence" — especially those who cast ballots in the east. Obama said the U.S. was eager to work with the next president, supports Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity and rejects Russia's "occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea."
U.S. House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., called the election "a clear victory for Ukrainian democracy and a big setback to Vladimir Putin's efforts to divide the country."
Tymoshenko, the blond-braided, divisive heroine of the 2004 Orange Revolution, praised the courage of the voters.
"I would like to congratulate Ukraine with the fact that despite the current aggression by the Kremlin and the desire to break this voting, the election happened and was democratic and fair," said Tymoshenko, who spent 2 ½ years in prison on abuse of office charges. "I think this is the evidence of the strength of our nation."
After the polls closed, Poroshenko appeared on a stage beside former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, who at one point last year was leading in national polls for president. He later decided to support Poroshenko and run for Kiev mayor instead. Results of that race were not available Sunday, but Poroshenko told journalists that their own private survey showed Klitschko winning the race.
Unlike many 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 chocolate stores and candies are on sale in every kiosk across the country, helping lead to the perception that he is the "good tycoon."
Many voters appreciate Poroshenko's pragmatism and his apparent knack for compromise. Poroshenko strongly backs closer ties with the 28-nation EU, but also speaks about the need to normalize ties with Russia.
"He is a very smart man who can work hard compared to others, and he is also a businessman and knows that compromises are necessary even if unpleasant," said 55-year old Kiev teacher Larisa Kirichenko.
Anastasia Fedchenko of Kiev said Poroshenko "is not the worst candidate that Ukrainians could have elected."
The question of who was able to vote loomed large over the democratic process. Separatists in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions — which have 5.1 million voters — rejected the vote because they say they are no longer part of Ukraine.
The regional administration in Donetsk said only 426 of 2,430 polling stations in the region were open Sunday, 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.
It was also not clear if voters from Crimea were able to travel to other areas in Ukraine to vote.
There were plenty of disruptions Sunday in Donetsk. A rebel convoy carrying several hundred heavily armed men drove through the city Sunday, then climbed out, stood to attention and shot their guns into the air as several thousand supporters cheered.
Outside the Donetsk administration building, which has been occupied by rebels since early April, a group of masked men drove up carrying confiscated ballot boxes and made a show of smashing them in front of news cameras.
Another team of insurgents visited polling stations in Donetsk to make sure they were closed. One polling station in the city opened but minutes later gunmen arrived and forced its election commission out. Gunmen also stormed the village council in Artemivka and set that polling station ablaze, the Ukrainian Interior Ministry said.
An Associated Press reporter heard heavy gunfire Sunday in Novoaidar in the Luhansk region.
Sergei Melnichuk, a commander of a pro-Ukrainian militia in Novoaidar, said about 50 armed rebels attacked a polling station trying to seize ballots, but government forces thwarted the move and captured 13 of them. The Interfax-Ukraine news agency quoted the deputy interior minister as saying one person was killed in the fighting.
Voting did take place in some parts of the Donetsk region that remain under government control.
In the Azov Sea port of Mariupol, 202 out of the city's 216 polling stations were working. Rinat Akhmetov, the billionaire metals tycoon who is Ukraine's richest man, had his factory workers there join police a week ago to patrol the city and evict the pro-Russia insurgents from government buildings.
"I want order in this country. We can't continue without a president. We need order," voter Gennadiy Menshykov said in Mariupol.
In the town of Krasnoarmeisk, in the western Donetsk region, a trickle of people came to cast ballots. Ivan Sukhostatov, 37, said he had voted for peace.
"We came to show that this whole situation is contrived," he said. "One side are called terrorists, the others get called fascists. But we have no differences between us. We have one faith, we speak one language. We just want there to be peace."
The Ukrainian exit polls surveyed 17,000 voters at 400 precincts and indicated Poroshenko passed the 50 percent mark needed to win without a runoff. It claimed a margin of error of 2 percentage points and was conducted by the Razumkov Center, Kiev International Sociology Institute and the Democratic Initiatives Foundation.
Leonard reported from Donetsk, Ukraine. Nebi Qena in Novoaidar, Alexander Zemlianichenko in Slovyansk, Dmitry Kozlov in Mariupol, Ed Brown in Krasnoarmeisk and Maria Danilova in Kiev contributed to this report.