Former foreign minister Petro Poroshenko appeared to have won the Ukrainian presidency with more than half the votes cast - avoiding the need for a runoff, according to two polls of voters as they left polling stations Sunday.
The polls conducted by several research organizations said Poroshenko received between 56 and 58 percent of the vote, far ahead of his nearest rival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who trailed with about 13 percent. She conceded the election in a speech Sunday night.
Final results are expected Monday.
Ukraine's government was determined to go ahead with the election despite threats from pro-Russian separatists in the east, who blocked access to polling places. No voting stations were open in the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk, while a scant 16 percent voter turnout is reported in the entire Donetsk region.
President Barack Obama congratulated the Ukrainian people for making their voices heard over the violence and provocations. He said Ukrainians repeatedly have shown their desire to chose their own leaders and live in a democracy. Obama said the United States looks forward to working with the new Ukrainian president and the elected parliament.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is promising to recognize the outcome of the election, despite expressing misgivings about its legitimacy. He also said he hopes Ukraine's new president will end military operations against separatists in the east.
Sunday's election was the climax of sometimes violent anti-government protests that started last year and drove pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych from power. It also led to a Russian takeover of Crimea, a Russian-speaking Ukrainian peninsula.
Crowded polling stations
Researchers criticized election officials for long lines that formed at some polling stations late in the day, which they blamed partly on poor organization. The pollsters said they increased the margin of error because of the lines, but not enough to change the results.
Poroshenko thanked voters, particularly some who traveled from Russian-controlled Crimea to vote.
Poroshenko said the first thing he will do is work to bring peace to the east. He said his first trip will be to that area.
In eastern Ukraine, Russian-backed separatists have taken over some towns and public buildings, and have been fighting deadly battles with government forces.
Poroshenko said his next war will be against corruption, and that he will deepen the country’s ties to the European Union.
Voter turnout was strong in most of the country, exceeding 50 percent in many areas. But in two eastern districts, hundreds of polling stations never opened and others had low turnouts.
Election monitors said separatists intimidated both voters and election workers.
In addition, clashes between separatists and government forces continued in at least one area on Sunday.
One voter in Kyiv, a student who gave his name only as Volodymyr, summarized the hopes expressed by many Ukrainians on Sunday.
“I hope that these votes, they will bring us consolidation, they will bring us the needed economic new reforms that will make our country really European," Volodymyr said.
No serious election problems
Thousands of Ukrainian and international observers monitored the election.
There were no reports of serious problems, except in the east.
The foreign observers will make their official reports on Monday. One monitor at a Kyiv voting station was U.S. Congressman Michael Burgess.
“From everything I’ve seen this morning, from a policy standpoint, from a procedural standpoint, things seem to be going as well or better than could be expected," said Burgess.
The apparent winner, Poroshenko, made his money in the candy business and has served as foreign minister and economics minister. He is pro-European, but political analysts say Russian President Vladimir Putin sees him as someone he can work with.
In spite of backing the separatists and keeping thousands of Russian troops near the border, Putin said this week that he would accept the results of the Ukrainian election.
Sunday's vote is widely seen as the most important election since Ukraine gained independence with the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.