KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Early returns Monday suggested candy tycoon Petro Poroshenko was elected president of Ukraine in the first round of balloting. In taking on the leadership of the bitterly divided country, he vowed to “put an end to war, chaos, crime, and bring peace to the Ukrainian land.”
The 48-year-old billionaire, who claimed victory after exit polls showed him with a commanding lead in Sunday’s vote, supports strong ties with Europe but also wants to mend ties with Russia.
He said his first steps as president would be to visit the Donbass eastern industrial region, where pro-Russia separatists have seized government buildings and battled government troops in weeks of fighting. Poroshenko also said the Kiev government would like to negotiate a new security treaty with Moscow.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Poroshenko struck a reconciliatory tone, saying he had no “rivals or political opponents in the race” and all of the other main candidates have congratulated him on his win.
“More than ever, Ukraine now needs to be united,” he said.
The rebels had vowed to block the voting in the east, and less than 20 percent of the polling stations were open there after gunmen intimidated local residents by smashing ballot boxes, shutting down polling centers and issuing threats.
On Monday, some pro-Russians blocked off the road to the airport in Donetsk, a major eastern city, apparently causing delays to many flights.
But nationwide, about 60 percent of 35.5 million eligible voters turned out on Sunday, and long lines snaked around polling stations in the capital, Kiev.
With votes from 60 percent of precincts counted early Monday, Poroshenko was leading with about 54 percent in the field of 21 candidates. Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was running a distant second with 13 percent.
Mykhaylo Okhendovsky, chairman of the Central Election Commission, said in a televised presser that the official results would be announced by June 5.
Both results were in line with the exit polls, which showed Poroshenko with nearly 56 percent and Tymoshenko with 13 percent. If that margin holds, Poroshenko would avoid a runoff election next month with the second-place finisher.
Speaking after the polls closed, Poroshenko also promised a dialogue with residents of eastern Ukraine and to guarantee their rights, including the right to speak Russian. He also said he was ready to extend amnesty to those who haven’t taken up weapons.
“For those who are killing the people, they are terrorists, and no country in the world has any negotiations with terrorists,” Poroshenko said, speaking in English.
The election, which came three months after pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych was chased from office by crowds following months of street protests and allegations of corruption, was seen as a critical step toward resolving Ukraine’s protracted crisis.
Since his ouster, Russia has annexed the Crimea Peninsula in southern Ukraine, the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk have declared their independence from Kiev, and the interim Ukrainian government has launched an offensive in the east to quash an uprising that has left dozens dead.
Poroshenko ducked the question whether he was prepared to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but said meetings with Russia should be held as soon as possible.
“And I think that Russia is our neighbor. And without Russia it would be much less effective or almost impossible to speak about the security in the whole region or maybe about the global security,” Poroshenko said.
Putin has promised to “respect the choice of the Ukrainian people” in the election and said he would work with the winner, in an apparent bid to ease Russia’s worst crisis with the West since the Cold War and avoid a new round of Western sanctions. The interim Kiev government and the West have accused Russia of backing the separatist uprising. Moscow has denied the accusations.
Unlike many other Ukrainian billionaires, Poroshenko did not make his fortune in murky post-Soviet privatizations but instead built his chocolate empire brick by brick. His Willy Wonka-like chocolate stores and candies are on sale in every kiosk across the country, helping lead to the perception that he is the “good tycoon.”
Many voters appreciate Poroshenko’s pragmatism and his apparent knack for compromise.
President Barack Obama praised Ukrainians for participating in the voting “despite provocations and violence.” Obama said the U.S. supports Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, rejects Russia’s “occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea” and is eager to work with the next president.
U.S. House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce of California called the election “a clear victory for Ukrainian democracy and a big setback to Vladimir Putin’s efforts to divide the country.”
Tymoshenko, the blond-braided, divisive heroine of the 2004 Orange Revolution, praised the courage of the voters.
“I would like to congratulate Ukraine with the fact that despite the current aggression by the Kremlin and the desire to break this voting, the election happened and was democratic and fair,” said Tymoshenko, who spent 2 1/2 years in prison on abuse of office charges. “I think this is the evidence of the strength of our nation.”
Associated Press writer Peter Leonard contributed from Donetsk, Ukraine.