KYIV — While fighting continues in parts of eastern Ukraine, a majority of voters in rest of the country expressed their will at the ballot box in Sunday’s presidential election - which, according to European election observers, largely met international standards.
It was one of the largest election observation teams European authorities have assembled to monitor an election - more than a thousand observers were fielded by the Organization for European Security and Cooperation, or OSCE. And the head of the mission, João Soares, along with European parliamentarians, gave his verdict.
“As you have heard, the international observers recognize these elections as proper and decent," said Soares.
The Portuguese politician decried the sabotage of the elections by separatists in Ukraine’s two easternmost provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk, where pro-Russian insurgents managed to stop any voting in 24 out of 34 polling districts. But he insisted that the outcome of the vote should be respected, noting that the turnout of 60 percent across the country was higher than the turnout for Sunday’s European parliamentary polls in 27 countries.
“Of course there were problems in Donetsk and in Luhansk, but the turnout in all of Ukraine is much better than the turnout of the elections that occurred the same day to the European parliament. I was a member of the European Parliament. I would be very proud to have this turnout in my own elections," he said.
It remains unclear still how many easterners did manage to vote. One estimate on Sunday by Ukraine’s election commission put the turnout at 9 percent in Donetsk, where separatists abducted election officials, threatened poll workers and forced the closure of polling stations.
The OSCE, the main outside group monitoring Sunday’s presidential race, said the election was characterized by "high turnout and the clear resolve of authorities to hold what was a genuine election largely in line with international commitments and with a respect for fundamental freedoms.”
The OSCE report also said voting and counting procedures were transparent and that candidates were able to campaign freely. It notes that at 98 percent of polling stations observed outside eastern Ukraine voting was orderly and well organized.
But the OSCE said the early tabulation of the vote was at times chaotic, partly because of a virus buried by separatists in the election commission’s computer system.
For all of the problems in the east, European parliamentarians said the fact that billionaire Petro Poroshenko won an outright victory in the first round of voting, doing away with the need for a June run-off, illustrates the legitimacy of his election, proving that he is backed by most of the country.
Swiss politician Andreas Gross says the separatists failed to undermine the vote's legitimacy.
“Legitimacy is the product of an election which is a nationwide effort and you can’t hinder in two provinces," said Gross.
The European politicians say they hope Poroshenko can launch talks to heal national divisions and to resolve the insurgency in the east.
Dialogue may be all the harder after separatists seized Donetsk's airport Sunday night, however, prompting an airstrike Monday by the Ukrainian military.