Kiev, 26 October 2014:Â War-weary Ukrainians voted on Sunday in an election that is likely to install a pro-Western parliament and strengthen President Petro Poroshenko’s mandate to end separatist conflict in the east, but could fuel tension with Russia.
People wrapped up warmly on a cold, clear day to vote in the first parliamentary poll since protests in the capital Kiev last winter forced Moscow-backed leader Viktor Yanukovich to flee and ushered in a pro-Europe leadership under Poroshenko.
In eastern regions controlled by the army, soldiers armed with automatic rifles and wearing bulletproof jackets guarded polling stations under the yellow and blue Ukrainian flag.
There was no voting in areas held by pro-Russian rebels who will underline their autonomy with a separate election on Nov. 2.
“There was shelling all yesterday as we were preparing the voter lists,” said Nadezhda Danilchenko, a member of the election committee at a polling station in Volnovakha, a town about 50 km (30 miles) south of Donetsk in east Ukraine.
“Either they (the separatists) are practicing their shooting or they’re trying to intimidate us.”
Poroshenko, a 49-year-old billionaire confectionery tycoon, went to a town in the Donetsk region held by the army to show support for the troops after a relatively calm night in the east under a shaky ceasefire in force since Sept. 5.
A loose political grouping that backs Poroshenko is expected to become the leading force in the 450-seat assembly, giving him a mandate to pursue his peace plan for the east and carry out deep reforms sought by Ukraine’s European Union partners.
Poroshenko said in a televised address on Saturday he wanted a majority to emerge that would see through laws to support a pro-Europe agenda and break with the country’s Soviet past.
“Without such a majority in parliament, the President’s program … will simply remain on paper,” he said.
Poroshenko’s forces may not win an outright majority on voting on party lists and individual constituencies, but he should be able to form a coalition with partners such as Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk’s People’s Front as most big parties are pro-European, anti-Russian and favor a united Ukraine.
“This election is a very important event in our lives. We have a unique opportunity for the first time to get a Ukrainian parliament which would lead Ukraine towards Europe and towards NATO,” said Radical Party leader Oleh Lyashko, a populist to whom Poroshenko may have to turn for support.
With diminished pro-Russian influence and following a strong European integration agenda, it will be one of the most radical parliaments since Ukraine gained independence in 1991.
The emergence of a strong parliament committed to a united Ukraine could put new strains on ties with Russia, which Kiev blames for backing rebels in a conflict that has killed more than 3,700 people and destroyed the economy.
A gas pricing row with Russia which has the potential to disrupt supplies to European Union countries via Ukraine also rumbles on unresolved despite a meeting between Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Poroshenko called the snap election with the aim of clearing out Yanukovich loyalists and securing further legitimacy for Kiev’s pro-Western direction after the “Euromaidan” protests of last winter over Yanukovich’s pro-Moscow policies.
Many parties have enlisted war veterans and “Euromaidan” activists as candidates which will add to the strong patriotic and nationalist tone of the new parliament.
“I don’t think it’s a good thing if a lot of military get into parliament but there’s a war going on and it’s dictating what laws we have,” said Sofia Didkovskaya, 36, voting in Kiev.
The protests last winter were broadly supported by the West but denounced by Russia as a coup after Yanukovich’s fall. A month later, Russia annexed Crimea and separatist rebellions, supported by Russia, erupted in the industrialized east.
The ensuing crisis, in which the United States and its Western allies have imposed sanctions, is the worst between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War.
After Yatseniuk warned of possible “terrorist” attacks, police were out on force to guard polling stations, candidates and party headquarters across the sprawling country, which had a population of 46 million before the annexation of Crimea.
In all, 29 parties are running, though only a handful are expected to reach the 5 percent level required to secure representation in parliament. Polling stations close at 8 p.m. with exit polls available almost immediately.
About 2,000 international observers, including a team of about 800 from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, are in place to monitor polling procedures. Many voters were unable to vote in Crimea and the east, meaning only 423 of parliament’s 450 deputies will be elected.