An exit poll today showed that billionaire candy-maker Petro Poroshenko won Ukraine's presidential election outright in the first round, a vote that authorities hoped would unify the deeply fractured nation.
Long lines snaked around polling stations in Kiev for the vote but heavily armed pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine intimidated locals by smashing ballot boxes, shutting down polling centers and issuing threats.
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 per cent of the polling stations were open there.
The exit poll for today's election, conducted by three respected Ukrainian survey agencies, found the 48-year-old candy tycoon Poroshenko getting 55.9 per cent of the vote.
In a distant second was former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko with 12.9 per cent, the poll showed. Full results are expected to be announced tomorrow in the election that could be a critical step toward resolving Ukraine's crisis.
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-per cent mark needed to win without a runoff. It was conducted by the Razumkov Center, Kiev International Sociology Institute and the Democratic Initiatives Foundation.
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.
Yet the question of who was able to vote today loomed large over the democratic process. 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 will not hold the vote because they are 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 today, 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.
Fighting broke out today in the Luhansk town of Novoaidar, where an AP reporter heard heavy gunfire. Areas north of the town, 50 kilometres north of the rebel-held city of Luhansk, are under the control of pro-government forces.