KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainians overwhelmingly backed several pro-Western parties in a landmark parliamentary election Sunday, another nudge in the former Soviet republic's drift away from Russia.
Two exit polls released as voting closed indicated that President Petro Poroshenko's party will secure a narrow win in the parliamentary election, falling substantially short of an outright majority. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk's Popular Front followed close behind.
Although they lead rival parties, Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk share pro-Western sentiments and have campaigned on reform agendas aimed at pulling Ukraine back from the brink of economic ruin. The parties are expected to join forces with other reform-oriented groups to form a broad pro-European coalition.
Talking to supporters at his party headquarters, a visibly ebullient Poroshenko said coalition talks will start Monday and will last no longer than 10 days.
Almost three million people were unable to vote in eastern regions still gripped with unrest as government troops continue to wage almost daily battle against pro-Russian separatists.
The vote on Sunday will substantially overhaul a legislature once dominated by loyalists of ousted former president Viktor Yanukovych.
"We are seeing a triumph of pro-European forces and a collapse among pro-Russian parties," said Mikhailo Mischenko, an analyst with the Razumkov Center think tank. "Ukrainian people see their future in Europe, and this is something that all Ukrainians politicians will have to account for."
The Rating Group Ukraine exit poll said the Poroshenko Bloc won 22.2 percent of the votes and that the Popular Front came in second with 21.8 percent. Another exit poll, organized by three Ukrainian research groups, saw the Poroshenko Bloc with 23 percent of the vote and Popular Front at 21.3 percent. A recently formed pro-European party based in western Ukraine, Samopomich, was third in the poll with around 14 percent of the vote.
In an address published on the president's website, Poroshenko said the authorities had received an unprecedented show of support from the Ukrainian people.
"A constitutional majority — more than three-fourths of voter taking part in the election — have powerfully and irreversibly supported a European course for Ukraine," he said. "Any delay in reform will spell a certain death. So I expect the quick formation of a new coalition."
Other groups that look likely to have entered parliament include firebrand populist Oleh Lyashko's Radical Party, the nationalist Svoboda party and the Fatherland Party of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Two U.S. officials said American Embassy staff members visited 10 polling places in Kiev where they found that "the atmosphere was upbeat and positive."
"Today's vote is yet another step in Ukraine's democratic journey," said a statement released by Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, and Daniel Baer, the U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. They said the OSCE planned to hold a news conference Monday in Kiev to share a preliminary assessment of the election.
While around 36 million people were registered to vote, no voting was held on the Crimean Peninsula, which was annexed by Russia in March, or in parts of Ukraine's easternmost regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where shelling remains a daily constant. The fight against armed separatists on the border with Russia has claimed the lives of more than 3,600 people.
Yanukovych was overthrown in February after a wave of sometimes violent street protests sparked by his snap decision to put ties with the European Union on hold in favor of deepening trade relations with Russia. The outgoing parliament was previously largely controlled by his Party of Regions, which had its main base of support in the heavily Russian-speaking industrial east.
Some supporters of the Party of Regions were viewed as likely to back the Opposition Bloc party, which exit polls have shown with almost 8 percent of the vote, well above the 5 percent threshold needed to enter parliament.
Tamara Shupa, a 62-year old retiree in Kiev, the capital, said she hoped incoming lawmakers would put an end to the conflict in the east.
"We are very tired of the war," Shupa said at a polling station. "To bring about change, we need peace."
Andrei Voitenko, a 40-year old teacher casting his ballot at a school in Kiev, said a new parliament would have to work toward repaying the high price paid by his fellow Ukrainians.
"We are overhauling the government because Ukraine and Ukrainians have made a European choice," Voitenko said. "We need a new parliament to make a European future. We have drawn a line under our Soviet past."
The public mood has turned sharply against the leadership in Moscow over what is widely seen as its direct role in fomenting separatist unrest.
"Russia cannot interfere with Ukraine. We will become part of Europe," said 30-year old economist Anton Rushailo, after voting in Kiev. "Sooner or later, we will join NATO, and today we are taking an important step in that direction."
Igor Seleznev, a retired 65-year old economist, said he cast his ballot for Opposition Bloc as he believed it was the only party willing to resist the emerging pro-reform consensus.
"For now, I see only change for the worse. Standard of life is getting worse, we are at war with Russia and there is economic chaos," Seleznev said.
In Volnovakha, a government-controlled town 60 kilometers (38 miles) south of the main rebel-held city of Donetsk, voting took place under heavy security.
"Nobody wants what is going on now," said Nadezhda Eshtokina, a retiree in Volnovakha. "I think everything will be good with time, and our grandchildren will live well and live like Europeans."
Associated Press reporter Mstyslav Chernov in Volnovakha, Ukraine, and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Donetsk, Ukraine, contributed to this report.