Poroshenko Declares Victory in Ukraine Presidential Election
Wall Street Journal: Asia
By Paul Sonne
KIEV — Petro Poroshenko declared victory in Ukraine’s presidential election Sunday after exit polls showed the pro-Europe chocolate tycoon won more than half the vote, but separatists largely blocked voting in parts of the east.
The shuttered polling stations across Donbas—the restive region in Ukraine’s southeast where armed pro-Russia rebels have declared a separatist republic—showed the colossal obstacle Mr. Poroshenko will have to overcome to unite Ukraine and prevent the fractured country from slipping deeper into an already-deadly civil conflict.
“My first presidential trip will be to Donbas,” Mr. Poroshenko announced Sunday night after polls indicated he had avoided a runoff and come in far ahead of his closest challenger, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. He said his top priority was to bring peace to the country and put an end to chaos in the east, where clashes between Ukrainian troops and rebels have left dozens dead and resulted in the country’s worst crisis since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.
The 48-year-old billionaire pledged to call nationwide parliamentary elections by year’s end. He also promised to guide Ukraine toward Europe with all the government’s power but also vowed to normalize ties with Russia, saying relations with the country’s larger neighbor are more important than they’ve been in centuries.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had pledged on Friday to respect the result of Sunday’s elections and work with the new Ukrainian president. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated Mr. Putin’s comments on Monday and said Russia was ready “for dialogue” with Ukraine’s new government. Mr. Poroshenko also said he would meet with Mr. Putin, pointing out the impossibility of ensuring security in the region without Russia’s participation.
Ukraine’s Central Election Commission said late Sunday that voter turnout had been more than 60%, though it cautioned that votes in all the regions hadn’t yet been counted. International observers who monitored voting across Ukraine reported few major violations. But voters in the separatist-held regions of Luhansk and Donetsk had little opportunity to cast their ballots, with the bulk of the polling stations there closed.
The White House, which had threatened broader sanctions against Russia if it disrupted the vote, praised Ukraine for carrying out its elections Sunday despite provocations and violence in the east.
“The United States looks forward to working with the next President, as well as the democratically elected parliament, to support Ukraine’s efforts to enact important political and economic reforms,” the White House said in a statement.
There were no immediate reports of clashes between Ukrainian government troops and separatist militants on Sunday, but Italy’s foreign ministry said an Italian photographer had been killed Saturday in the area of Slovyansk, the heart of the region’s rebel insurgency. A ministry official said it was a “violent death.”
The former foreign minister and chocolate magnate Mr. Poroshenko is inheriting a Ukraine far different from the one he knew six months ago, when he became the only Ukrainian tycoon to throw his weight publicly behind protesters who were demanding closer ties with Europe on Kiev’s Independence Square.
Since those protests toppled Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych in February, Ukraine has lost Crimea—the Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed, in part to protect its military interests there—and inherited a bloody separatist pro-Russia rebellion in the east. The unrest has destabilized the nation and spread to other parts of the country, including the southern port city of Odessa.
Despite vowing to normalize relations with Russia, Mr. Poroshenko was firm on retaining Ukraine’s boundaries. “Ukraine will never recognize the illegitimate referendum and occupation of Crimea,” he said.
Three exit polls released Sunday night estimated that 55.7% to 57.3% of the electorate voted for the tycoon, who owns the country’s Roshen confectionary company and Ukraine’s Channel 5 television channel. The Central Election Commission, however, had yet to confirm the final results of the vote.
According to Ukrainian rules, a candidate can win the presidency outright by receiving more than half the vote in the first round. But if the top candidate receives less than half the vote, he or she must enter a runoff against the second-place finisher.
Ms. Tymoshenko finished second, according to the exit polls, which said she won 12.4% to 12.9% of the vote. She gave a concession speech calling for national unity and pledging to help the Ukrainian government move toward membership in the European Union.
It marked a low point in the political career of the former prime minister, who came in a close second in the 2010 presidential race against Mr. Yanukovych. She was jailed the next year on charges of abuse of office in connection with a Russian gas deal in what Ms. Tymoshenko called a political vendetta. She was released as Mr. Yanukovych fled to Russia upon his ouster.
Exit polls also showed that Ukrainian boxer turned politician Vitali Klitschko had emerged victorious in the race for Kiev mayor. Initially he had been running for president but dropped out of the national race after allying with Mr. Poroshenko.
One surprise in the exit polls was the rise of the third-place finisher Oleh Lyashko, a radical nationalist member of parliament who appeared to have notched between 8% and 9% of the vote. Mr. Lyashko campaigned in part by sending his alleged “battalions” of armed men into the east to capture separatists, photos or videos of whom he would post online. Human Rights Watch condemned the activities.
Rebels who have declared an independent republic in the regions, which together are home to 6.57 million people, prided themselves Sunday on disrupting the vote.
Polling stations had opened Sunday morning in only nine of the 34 counties in those regions, according to Ukraine’s Central Election Commission. Crimea, home to nearly two million people, was also left out of the presidential vote. Including those regions, Ukraine has a population of 45.4 million.
In Donetsk, home to Mr. Yanukovych and his longtime political base, hundreds of heavily armed pro-Russia rebels paraded in front of a crowd of about 2,000 in an anti-election protest. All the polling stations in the downtown area were closed. Officials said 426 out of 2,430 polling stations opened in the region, still largely controlled by armed militias. Some shops and cafes were closed, and many ATMs had run out of cash.
In a video message, Pavel Gubarev, one of the pro-Russia militant movement’s leaders, said the eastern region didn’t participate because residents of Donbas already made their choice when they voted in a May 11 referendum for independence from Ukraine. Kiev denounced that slapdash vote as a farce.
“We wish neighboring Ukraine prosperity and all the best under the rule of the people’s oligarch, Mr. Poroshenko,” he said.
Earlier this month, Western leaders including President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned of further sanctions against Russia if the country were to disrupt Sunday’s vote. But some say the vote by then had already been disrupted by a rebellion in the east they believe Russia backed.
“Ask the people in Luhansk and Donetsk if their elections were disrupted,” said U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), who was in Kiev serving as an election monitor for the International Republican Institute, a democracy-building nonprofit. She said she met with Mr. Poroshenko, who requested U.S. aid to shore up Ukraine’s beleaguered military.
The rebel insurgency in the east has left dozens of people dead, divided Ukrainians and transformed much of the country’s southeast into a bloody and uncertain conflict zone.
Officials in Kiev including Mr. Poroshenko hope a plan to give individual regions more power over their own affairs can appease alienated constituents in the east and sew the rebel regions back into the fabric of the country.
Separately, Mr. Poroshenko faces a long road in reviving Ukraine’s troubled economy. The country has agreed to implement reforms as part of a $17 billion rescue package the International Monetary Fund approved on April 30.
Those reforms call for a steep increase in taxes and domestic gas prices, coupled with austerity measures to reduce spending — unpopular moves that could challenge Mr. Poroshenko’s political resolve. Even with such reforms, the IMF predicts a 5% contraction in Ukraine’s economy in 2014 and says more bailout money could be required.
During his campaign, Mr. Poroshenko vowed to sell all his business interests with the exception of his Channel 5 television channel. His confectionary company Roshen has decreased in value ever since Russia banned its chocolates last year.
Many viewed the ban as an effort by the Kremlin to warn Ukraine against signing a European trade pact. When Mr. Yanukovych, in fact, declined to sign the pact, the pro-Europe protests erupted in Kiev, beginning the chain of events that led to his ouster. Mr. Poroshenko has now made the pact a centerpiece of his economic plan.
The chocolate tycoon has a long history in Ukrainian politics, serving as foreign minister under former President Viktor Yushchenko and later trade minister under Mr. Yanukovych. Despite his history in the country’s dysfunctional politics, many Ukrainians voted for the tycoon anyway, seeing in him the best of a less than ideal group of candidates.
Galina Zamotayeva, a 54-year-old endocrinologist, expressed hope that his vast personal fortune would make him less likely to engage in corruption that has crippled Ukraine’s government.
“I can’t say it’s a candidate that 100% satisfies us,” Ms. Zamotayeva said as she waited to cast her vote at a polling station in a central Kiev schoolhouse. But she said she felt Mr. Poroshenko was a rational choice—neither an adventurist nor a populist. “It’s always a compromise.”
— James Marson and Alan Cullison contributed to this article.