Separatists Shut Down Polling Places In East Ukraine Cities

Correspondent Peter Kenyon tells NPR's Rachel Martin that voting is brisk in Sunday's presidential election in Ukraine — except in the east, where pro-Russian separatists have shut down polls.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The polls in Ukraine are now closed after today's historic presidential election, and it looks like oligarch Petro Poroshenko has secured more than 50 percent of the votes needed to avoid a runoff. His immediate task will be to assert his government's control over the eastern part of the country where separatists made sure millions of people could not cast ballads today.

NPR's Peter Kenyon is covering the Ukrainian election in Kiev. He joins me now. Peter, what are exit polls saying? And when do we expect the official results to be in?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, I don't expect official results before tomorrow, at least. So what we have to go by now is the first exit poll data. And they show that Petro Poroshenko, nicknamed the chocolate king for his confectionary business, taking just under 56 percent of the vote. If the official results reflect that, there will be no need for a runoff - looks like former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko will finish a distant second, with just under 13 percent of the vote.

It's worth noting that there were nearly 20 candidates on the ballad which would make it very hard for anyone to get an outright majority, normally. I think it's a sign of how determined Ukrainians seem to be to get this election over with as soon as possible, turn the page and move on to the huge challenges ahead in trying to rebuild the country.

MARTIN: We've been reporting that pro-Russian militants kept polling stations shut in the eastern part of the country. How many people were prevented from voting - any idea?

KENYON: Well, I've been talking to political scientists and others much of the day, and I would estimate about five to six million people live in the areas where polling stations did not open today. Now not all of those are eligible voters, of course, and there's really no way of knowing how many of the eligible voters would have turned out if the stations had been open. But, clearly, we could say millions of voters were cut out of the process today by pro-Russian militants. Now in a country of 45 million, that's hardly majority, but, nonetheless, it's a troubling number of people who were disenfranchised.

MARTIN: How was turnout overall? And the big question, Peter - will this election be seen as legitimate?

KENYON: Well, with the exception of those areas in the east, mainly Donetsk, Luhansk and Sloviansk, turnout was described as very strong. I was just speaking with one of the observers and voting was still going on right up to the official closing. In fact, there may have been some extension in isolated areas. As for legitimacy, that is a big question. Pro-Russian activists are already calling the election illegitimate, but international observers from Europe and elsewhere are saying how impressed they are by the courage of Ukrainians who did get to the polls in the east. And they, at least, believe this election will be taken as reflecting the will of the people.

MARTIN: Very briefly, Peter - there were deadly battles in Eastern Ukraine before the election. What's the latest?

KENYON: Well, the latest we're getting is from the Italian foreign ministry confirming fatalities which occurred yesterday - a 30-year-old Italian photojournalist named Andrea Rocelli. He was killed along with a Russian translator outside of Sloviansk, a pro-Russian stronghold in the east - French photographer traveling with them said they came under mortar fire. He was wounded. There is also a report of a shooting in Luhansk - no details on that yet. Obviously getting the violence under control is a top priority for the new government.

MARTIN: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Kiev. Thanks so much, Peter.

KENYON: You're welcome, Rachel.

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