Ukraine votes against backdrop of war, corruption

Sebastian Smith and Olga Shylenko, with Maria Antonova in Mariupol and Nicolas Miletitch in Donetsk
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Ukrainian citizens vote at a polling station at the Ukrainian Embassy in Minsk on October 26, 2014

Ukrainian citizens vote at a polling station at the Ukrainian Embassy in Minsk on October 26, 2014 (AFP Photo/Sergey Balay)

Kiev (AFP) - A divided Ukraine voted Sunday in parliamentary elections that President Petro Poroshenko hopes will show support for his pro-Western reforms and plans to negotiate with pro-Russian insurgents.

Reformers and nationalists supporting a drive to steer Ukraine out of Russia's sphere of influence were expected to dominate. The Petro Poroshenko Bloc was forecast to be the biggest party, although needing partners to form a ruling coalition.

"Today we have a new Ukraine," Poroshenko said after voting in the capital Kiev. "I hope it will be possible to form a strong, pro-European democratic coalition."

The snap election came eight months after a street revolt overthrew Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovych, sparking conflict with Russia and a crisis in relations between the Kremlin and Ukraine's Western allies.

Sunday's election was meant to clear out the last vestiges of the Yanukovych regime.

But the war with pro-Russian rebels in the industrial east, in which 3,700 people have died, and Russia's earlier annexation of the southern Crimean region, cast a long shadow.

Voters in Crimea and in separatist-controlled areas of the eastern Lugansk and Donetsk provinces -- about five million of Ukraine's 36.5 million-strong electorate -- were unable to cast ballots.

Even 25,000 soldiers deployed in the war zone were shut out, Poroshenko said, blaming the outgoing parliament for failing to make provisions.

Twenty-seven seats in the 450-seat parliament will remain empty.


- Surprise war zone visit -


Dressed in camouflage, Poroshenko helicoptered in for a surprise visit to Kramatorsk, a government-held town in the heart of the conflict zone.

The dramatic gesture was clearly meant to show that the beleaguered region has not been forgotten.

"Today on territory liberated by Ukrainian servicemen they will vote for the European future of our country," Poroshenko said in nationally televised remarks.

However, the disenfranchisement of the separatist areas and Crimea seemed likely to further cement the once peaceful, now bloody faultline between Ukraine's Russian-speaking east and Ukrainian-speaking west.

After casting a vote for the radical nationalist Svoboda party in the capital Kiev, Tatyana Kryshko, 75, reflected the generally grim mood.

"I know things will be hard financially. I think that we won't live to see a rich and strong Ukraine, but that our children and grandchildren will," she told AFP.


- Nationalists, not communists -


Polls show a majority of Ukrainians support economic and democratic reforms -- especially a crackdown on corruption -- leading eventually to European Union membership.

For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party was not expected to clear the minimum threshold for entering parliament under proportional representation. Poroshenko, elected president in May with 55 percent of the vote, hopes that failure will symbolise his attempts to remake Ukraine.

However, there is less unity over how to resolve the dismemberment of the country in Russia's takeover of Crimea and the separatist battle in the east.

A Moscow-backed truce signed by Kiev and the separatists on September 5 has calmed the worst fighting, although there are daily violations around the largest rebel-held city Donetsk.

Insurgent leaders, who are not allowing polling stations to open in their areas, have announced their own leadership vote, which Kiev does not recognise, on November 2.

In theory, residents in places like Donetsk could leave and vote elsewhere, but one young man in the rebel-held city said that wasn't happening.

"I don't know anyone who has any intention of leaving Donetsk to go and vote," he said.

Ukrainian soldiers deployed nearby who were also barred from voting because they were in the conflict zone said they felt insulted.

"I think it's really not right that we don't have a chance to vote. Everyone should, especially people who are dying for this country," said Volodymyr Derchak, 62, a member of the volunteer Artemovsk battalion.


- A more powerful parliament -


Poroshenko insisted this week that there can be "no military solution" to the conflict with pro-Russian rebels and renewed his pledged to seek a political compromise.

That message was likely to be welcomed by Ukrainians alarmed at the prospect of open-ended war against shadowy forces that most people here believe are backed by Russia, although Moscow denies this.

But Poroshenko's softer line could meet resistance in the new parliament, where deputies are set to include members of hardline nationalist groups and soldiers turned politicians.

In Kiev, Tamara Kovalko, 62, said she had voted for one of the country's best known nationalist firebrands, Yulia Tymoshenko, because "she's a strong leader -- she can take care of the east."

The new parliament will have broad new powers that include the right to name the prime minister and most of his cabinet.

Parties expected to pass the five-percent threshold include the Radical Party of the populist Oleg Lyashko and former defence minister Anatoliy Grytsenko's Civil Opposition group.

Poroshenko would likely prefer to strike an alliance with the more moderate People's Front of current Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk -- an ally instrumental in securing a $27 billion (21 million euro) rescue package designed to cut Kiev's economic dependence on Moscow.

Polls will close at 8:00 pm (1800 GMT). Turnout two thirds of the way through voting reached 40 percent, slightly lower than the 45 percent turnout at the same stage in 2012 parliamentary elections.